Online friends, suicide and threats thereof

Recently, two people I know (or knew) on Twitter posted threats to kill themselves. One of them is a woman who has bipolar disorder and has been in hospital on several occasions recently; the other has a chronic, disabling condition and has had her hopes raised and then dashed repeatedly since her condition deteriorated in 2012. The latter left Twitter this past week, after friends took her threats seriously and told both her husband and the police; this led to a hospital appointment having to be cancelled. I wasn’t one of the people who called the police, or her husband, because I do not know more about her than her first name. But if I had done, I would have called whoever I knew could help.

I’ve seen people post their intentions to kill themselves before on Twitter, and I’ve always tried to raise the alarm, usually by alerting mutual friends who might be able to talk them round or call the police or someone they know. They don’t have to be someone I particularly like, or whose views I disagree with. The occasion with the bipolar lady, I did call the police when she posted on Twitter that she had decided that her best days were behind her, that she was planning to use her weekend leave from hospital to end her life, and that she felt at peace with her decision. Others pleaded with her to tell the hospital staff how she was feeling, which she did, and her leave was cancelled (although she was discharged a week or so later). I told the police everything I knew, except that the name I had for her was a pseudonym, so they would have found nobody by that description.

Why do we do this? The first and most important reason is that being told that someone is about to kill themselves causes worry and panic, and an urge to do something about it, much as if we saw someone in danger with our own eyes. We don’t want to interfere in someone else’s business, any more than the person we saw drowning or in danger of getting run over; we just want to protect them from danger, even if that is from themselves. The second is that none of us want to be that ‘friend’ who stood by and let someone kill themselves when they could have saved them, particularly if such details are reported in the media (as happened in the case of Simone Back in 2011 (see earlier entry).

A third reason is that people who announce that they intend to kill themselves usually don’t really want to die. People who really want to die do not do this; they quietly do it when they are on their own, and sometimes even disguise their intent (e.g. by finishing their day’s work first). There are some exceptions, such as those with very severe chronic or terminal illnesses who make a decision to end their lives over a long period, but for the most part an announcement of intent to commit suicide should be taken as a cry for help, and responded to accordingly. In one of the recent cases, I believed that the two women could be helped and did not need to die, and even if they wanted to at the time, they might be glad later that they had survived. One of them was clearly stressed because of two years of frustration dealing with doctors who were leaving her to slowly die from a treatable problem; the other was experiencing difficulty with her mental health which I believed was temporary and which she didn’t need to die from.

The case of the woman with the chronic illness I haven’t gone into too much detail about here. I’ve been following it since it started and it’s dreadful. Perhaps the story will be told at some point (probably not here as I’m no longer in contact with her since she left Twitter); the way some doctors are able to get away with doing damage to patients and then preventing them from getting it fixed, and their attitude to chronically ill people (who often know more about their own conditions than the doctors do) in general, are scandalous. The lady is a mother of two young boys, and they shouldn’t and need not lose her. The NHS shouldn’t be letting such a thing happen, and I won’t either, if I can help it.

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