Suicide advice from the internet killed more people in the UK than ecstasy, cannabis, mephedrone and GHB last year, and while the numbers remain relatively low, people are increasingly going online to get tips on how to die.
When the Office for National Statistics released their annual drug-death data last week, it showed that the number of barbiturate and helium-related deaths have risen dramatically since 2007, which isn't surprising, considering these are the most commonly recommended drugs in online communities where users plan their own way out of the world.
The cheery store front at finalexit.org.
The tabloid press is already up in arms and calls have been made to ban websites offering advice on suicide – campaigners have even compared them to paedophile networks – but if people are going to kill themselves, is there a case to be made for providing information on the least painful way to go? Trawling through these sites, I found Isaac Sarayiah, sent him an email and was relieved when he called me back to say he was still alive. He told me why he went online to get advice from a growing community of people looking to leave it all behind.
Isaac says that, unless you have been there, you can never know how it feels to desperately want a way out. “Access to the information makes it easier, but I don’t think it should be censored, because people, when they are like that, have a really low state of mind," he explains.
"You’re in a very difficult situation. In my case, I was trapped and, at that point, it was my only way out. It's not always that easy to find the information – you have to be quite dedicated to go through all the steps and make the helium hood.
"If you didn’t have access to that information, what would you do? You’d try to hang yourself or drown yourself or take an overdose. These things rarely succeed and you just end damaging your organs and waking up in intensive care.
“At least if someone is in that frame of mind it gives them a painless way out. Any death is a tragedy, but if someone is determined to do it, a painless way out is better."
The suicide bag, or "helium hood" method, consists of placing a large bag over the head and securing it around the neck, while a tube feeds helium into the hood. The inert gas prevents panic and there is no feeling of suffocation or struggling during unconsciousness. Every week, the 'papers run variations on the headline "Couple in Gas Suicide", and the idea of someone uttering their last words in that squeaky, high-pitched helium voice is an infinitely depressing and grotesque one, but there is no sign of an increase in deaths, just a change in method.
Isaac explained how his first attempt failed after a close friend of his contacted police and they surrounded his car as he tried to escape, subsequently admitting him to a psychiatric hospital. He was severely depressed, desperate, crying all the time, hopeless and he felt suicide was the only way out of his situation. Killing yourself is more difficult than you might think, though. Quite often your body will intervene and stop you taking that leap.
“I don't think you should underestimate what people go through if you've never been in that situation, where someone is that low and in that frame of mind,” Isaac explains. “There are people who have done it using chemicals you can buy – everyday products – and they create a toxic gas. I've read about people who have done that. If someone is that low, they will find a way to harm themselves.
“When I was initially going to commit suicide, I didn’t have access to this information. I was so low that I was going to overdose or drown myself. I had written a suicide note and I was gone.”
This is what brought him to an online community offering what seemed to be easy solutions, with detailed instructions on how to use helium to end his life. Online businesses have sprung up, teaching people how to use the gas to kill themselves – eBooks, DVDs and pre-made kits are all on offer on these macabre sites.
It’s illegal to encourage suicide in the UK, but one 91-year-old US woman ran a business selling "helium hoods" online, sending butterfly adorned boxes out across the world before the FBI shut her down. Isaac warns that, even with helium, there are complications: “From my own research, helium was readily available and you can do it yourself. However, there have been reports of people who have tried it and just woken up with a really bad headache – they tore the hood off when they were in a state of semi-consciousness, because their body was trying to fight for life.
“In the end, I had three helium tanks stashed away, but fortunately my ordeal ended and they were put to good use, blowing up balloons at my 40th birthday party.”
On the forums, most are worried about being too scared to carry it through and want to find a pain-free route. The posts are calm and polite. People explain why they think they can’t go on and many come back over the years go by, as they slip back into despair. One woman explains she was abused by a family member and feels she can’t live a normal life. In the comments, some try to offer hope and condolences, but, on the whole, people are accepting of each other’s will to die.
A 20-year-old trained mental health worker confesses that he has set a date for his own death. Some seek to create suicide pacts with women or arrange to have sex before they go, because, as one user explains, "nobody should have to die alone".
While Isaac got straight back to me, every other UK user I tracked down has failed to reply. Most of their accounts have fallen out of activity and it seems they have been successful in their bids for death.
Isaac has since created a blog about his experiences, which you can find HERE.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack