Why People Live‑Stream Their Suicides
And why others watch.
On Monday, PTI reported a Gurgaon man committed suicide while life-streaming on Facebook. Last month, a woman in Kolkata did the same. Last month, an adolescent in Uttar Pradesh did the same. Other reports from around India and other countries suggest a trend, a phenomenon. We live in the age of social media. We live in the middle of what has been called a mental health crisis. These people are the casualties of both.
But why would one choose to broadcast such a moment?
“It’s difficult to sort of pinpoint to one particular quality, one particular thing and say this is why people could be doing this. But I think when you are driven to do it on a live platform, one thing is that you want more and more people to witness it,” says Tanuja Babre, a programme coordinator for iCall, a mental health counseling hotline that, she says, helps one to two people struggling with suicidal thoughts every day.
Social isolation can be a risk factor for suicide for some people. Live streaming death via a social network may be a last-ditch effort to connect, to be noticed, some experts say. But the consensus is, it’s impossible to generalize because, “even if these people leave a note about why they want to die, they often don’t say why they made it public, so it’s difficult to study this phenomenon,” writes Katherine Ramsland, PhD, a forensic psychologist.
But then why do people choose to watch?
Part of it could be the nature of social media. Facebook algorithms control what pops up in our newsfeed, and Facebook has a policy of not cutting off live-streaming suicide attempts (instead, they fill the user’s feed with suicide prevention resources, and alert partners like iCall, Babre says) in order to open up “the opportunity for people to reach out for support and for people to give support at this time that’s critically important,” Jennifer Guadagno, lead researcher for suicide prevention at Facebook, said in March.
But viewers don’t always respond in supportive ways. Humans have a deep, instinctual capability to observe tragedy without taking any action. We watch, even when it hurts us; studies on witnesses to public suicide are slim, but what exists suggests there is possibility for intense, if brief and not lasting, trauma.
“We watch [violent or tragic events] because we are allowed to ask ourselves ultimate questions with an intensity of emotion that is uncoupled from the true reality of the disaster: ‘If I was in that situation, what would I do? How would I respond? Would I be the hero or the villain? Could I endure the pain? Would I have the strength to recover?'” says Dr. David Henderson, a psychiatrist. “We play out the different scenarios in our head because it helps us to reconcile that which is uncontrollable with our need to remain in control.”
But that is the exact concern about witnesses to suicide, says Babre — too many people who see it come up with unhealthy answers to those questions. “When [a live-streamed suicide] happened the last time, we received a lot of emails saying, ‘I want to do something like this.’ It acts as a trigger and is more likely to lead to copy cats,” Babre says, adding that media coverage of suicide tends to further such ideation. “At such a mass level, some people start to idealize it.”
Young people and adolescents — for whom suicide is already a leading cause of death — are most prone to this misinterpretation. “It becomes about recognition for some people. Some people think, ‘This person was strong enough to [commit suicide],'” Babre says.
The counterpoint to this is improved outreach, destigmatization and a stronger mental health care field, so people know help is available and can access it. It’s also to improve how we talk about and report on suicide.
“It’s important to have conversations about it [suicide], but how you have the conversation matters,” she says. It’s important we don’t sensationalize it. It’s important we talk about the issue with utmost seriousness and say, ‘This is something that shouldn’t have happened. If someone is feeling like this, this is what you can do.'”
What You Can Do If You Witness a Live-Streamed Suicide Attempt
- Try to assess the intensity of the person’s feelings. Someone who is thinking about suicide is different from someone who has a plan and has already acquired what they need to enact it.
- Validate what the person is feeling. Offer to support them collaboratively. “What can we do together to help you feel better?”
- Negotiate if necessary. “I know it’s really difficult – can you hold on for one more hour? For two?”
- Contact a family member and/or a mental health professional immediately. Babre advises not contacting the police, as they may not have the sensitisation to handle such a delicate situation.
- Get professional help for yourself. Witnessing a suicide can be extremely emotionally disturbing, Babre says, and can lead to feelings of helplessness or act as a trigger for the observer.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call the Sneha 24-hour hotline at 91 044 2464 0050 / 91 044 2464 0060. If you are depressed or having thoughts of suicide, iCall is available Monday through Saturday, 8am to 10pm at 91 022 2552 1111.