Suicide reporting on the internet
Trigger warning: lots of suicide talk.
This post is not about Aaron Swartz. Neither is it about his death. It’s about some of the responses I’ve seen to his death.
You can tell people who’ve been around suicide before from those who haven’t. The ones for whom this is new are fitting it to a narrative. It’s the compassionate genius who was a little too good, or the activist hounded down by the government, or why would such a promising and beloved young person do something like this, or gosh there seems to be a link between creativity and mental illness, or some other well-meaning script.
Those of us for whom this brings back memories are, I think, a little less eager to see it as something that can be usefully explained, at least not by us.
Here’s some, well, not explanation, but context. Depression• is a top-five killer of pretty much every demographic from tweens to the very elderly. It’s especially common among people who are marginalized and lack social support, for example LGBT youth. After car accidents, it’s the leading killer of young men – above murder, above falls taken after saying “hold my beer a minute”, above testicular cancer, above congenital heart defects that no one knew about and he just keeled over, above accidentaly taking pills from the wrong bottle, above fire, above electrocution, above anything else people are scared of. (I highlight men’s greater risk because of my beef with masculinity, which I have seen prevent men from getting help in situations where I have seen women get help. But no one is out of danger.)
- I’m using “depression” as a non-technical umbrella term; it’s not necessarily in line with how, say, the DSM uses it. For an expert summary of the topic, talk to an expert.
A significant fraction of the population is at high risk of suicide at any given time. We know this because of things like psychological baseline studies, but also in a more gruesome empirical way: when a suicide is reported, the suicide rate goes up for a while. It seems to be roughly in proportion to how sensational the coverage is.
Yeah. Think that over.
One thing it teaches us is that suicide is not a normal decision. It’s not something that someone does by carefully weighing incentives and disincentives, because those don’t change after a suicide makes the news. (Of course there are other kinds of things going on here as well: self-sacrifice in an emergency, euthanasia, etc., but I’m talking about “normal” suicide.) It is not, in other words, something done responsibly, that others have a responsibility to let happen.
I see this idea out there on the internet sometimes, that “if people really want to kill themselves, we should let them”. I don’t think anyone saying this has seen that kind of “want” up close. I have. It is a gibbering, shape-shifting thing from another place that knows the words “I want” but is completely unattached to any useful idea of identity and desire.
Compared to people in other times and places, we are really obsessed with our brains. This gives us some advantages. But it means that when we get a disease of the brain, or see it in another, we aren’t good at separating it from the person. People who believed in demonic possession had their own problems, but maybe they were a little better at this one mental maneuver. Suicidality impinges on the brain, but it’s no more a person’s self than a hepatitis that impinges on their liver.
We do not secretly wish that people would just get over hepatitis; we do not assume that they know best how to cure it; we do not wonder aloud what part of their personality the hepatitis comes from; we do not shrug and say that if someone apparently wants hepatitis – and, implicitly, they have it because they want it – it’s not society’s place to stop them.
Another thing we learn from suicide spikes is that we, who are lucky enough not to be suicidal, have an unasked responsibility. Whenever we talk in public, we are talking to some people who have this disease in a life-threatening stage. What we say about it, the cause-of-death-by-date statistics tell us, matters to them.
Aaron Swartz is gone now, and nothing we do can find him. One of the barbs of a suicide is that it takes away the one person we most want to explain it. We can only make guesses how to catch the next one like him.
Here’s a guess: don’t romanticize suicide.
Here’s a guess: don’t talk as if it comes from a person’s true self, because (1) it’s factually incorrect and (2) it teaches that it can’t be treated without losing identity.
Here’s a guess: don’t talk as if you know exactly what was in the mind of a victim. At least put disclaimers on your speculations about influences.
Here’s a guess: don’t suppose that because someone is very smart, they can think their way out of depression, or that because they are very kind, they can be kind enough to themselves.
Here’s a guess: don’t use suicide as a punchline, and put trigger warnings on things that might be unusually dangerous for a person dealing with it.
Here’s a guess: watch out for your friends and yourself.
If you are suicidal and you read this far, talk to someone about it right now. Like, get up from your chair now, put down your phone now, or open your e-mail or DM tab now, go to whomever you trust, or distrust least, or a professional, and say that you’ve been feeling bad. Say the words to them. It will get easier from there.
If you are not suicidal, also talk about it. Talk to your friend or co-worker at lunch. If you’re both nerds, Aaron Swartz is a great opener. Maybe your friend needs help. Statistically, they probably don’t, but statistically, you probably both know people who do, and you’re training each other to notice and care.