Junior loved the weather: how to forecast rain or snow, the variations of atmospheric pressure, measuring wind, humidity, and temperature. He could watch the Weather Channel for hours. On a trip to New York with his mother Kelli Wilson in his early teens, they visited NBC Studios, where Junior stood in front of a green screen, where a meteorologist might stand, gesturing to a forthcoming or receding storm.
The night before Junior died, on April 25, 2020, Wilson looked up meteorology summer programs for her son—anything to wrench him out of the depressed and anxious mood he had been mired in for about four months.
Junior was 18 when he died by suicide, his round face still carrying the softness of childhood.
About a week after he died, Wilson entered the passcode on his phone and found a web page open. We're calling the website Suicide Solution, which is not its name, due to the concerns of experts who believe that naming it explicitly could lead to self-harm by distressed people. This was not an easy decision, for reasons this story delves into in detail, but we've chosen to err on the side of caution.
Suicide Solution is a self-described “pro-choice” community of people who feel suicidal or are having suicidal thoughts and ideation. From reading the posts on the website, Wilson found that hundreds of people were writing about ending their lives, the ways they might do it, and receiving well wishes and sympathy from other members. Junior had been a member of the site, one of around 500.
Suicide Solution differs from other well-known online suicide forums, like Take This Life, Suicide Forum, or Reddit’s Suicide Watch, in one immediately obvious way. The moderators aren’t as strict about limiting discussions about the methods one might use to end their life, though users often use abbreviations or code words. People post not only about how they’re feeling—despairing, hopeless, frustrated—but also about their plans, on which they get feedback and little pushback from others.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741, or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org for more information.
Wilson started a Facebook group for people who have also lost family members to suicide who were part of the Suicide Solution community. She, along with another active mother in the group, Jackie Bieber, are pushing for legislation—Bieber to increase the punishment for those who assist others in suicide and Wilson, to increase the liability website servers have for the content on the sites they host.
Wilson and Bieber have a unified overarching goal: They want Suicide Solution shut down. They both said that they are certain their children would still be alive if they had never found it. “You’re never going to get help in a place like that,” Wilson said. “This is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.”
In 2017, more than 47,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide, an increase of 33 percent since 1999. Suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of death. Evidence suggests that when a vulnerable person is exposed to suicide in their in-person social networks, it increases their risk of suicide, a theory known as suicide contagion. Writing about suicide, as a member of the media, also comes with risk. Some studies have suggested that mentioning details in news articles or glorifying suicide in TV shows or movies can increase suicidal thoughts in at-risk people.
We know that having access to guns, or other lethal means by which to die, dramatically increases suicide risk. But we can't yet quantify the exact risk of having access to information about methods online.
Yet, despite the internet's undeniably central role in how people learn, talk about, and connect over suicidality, we're still lacking basic information about the everyday influence of the internet on suicide vulnerability. We don’t know enough about what people look for online and why. We don't know whether what they find—on purpose or accidentally—can impact their decision-making in meaningful ways, or if it simply reinforces decisions that were made beforehand. We know that having access to guns, or other lethal means by which to die, dramatically increases suicide risk. But we can't yet quantify the exact risk of having access to information about methods online.
Suppressing suicide discussions online can be a gargantuan and impossible-seeming task. People are likely never going to stop talking about suicide online, whether it's dangerous or not. A review of hundreds of posts on Suicide Solution makes clear that people end up on the site because they feel overly censored in other forums. Too much censorship around talking about suicide ideation can end up making people feel ashamed of their thoughts, isolated, and even more hopeless. In this regard, Suicide Solution can be viewed not only as a contributing cause to people’s deaths, but also an effect of a society that isn’t meeting the needs of suicidal people.
“All of my clinical training and all of my research training tells me that having access to this type of information seems harmful and dangerous,” said Tracy Witte, a professor of psychology at Auburn University and an expert in suicide prevention. “But I guess the concern is, where do you draw the line? Have we gone too far on some of these sites with moderation in a way that folks feel like that can’t really be genuine and honest and talk about suicide?”
As a kid, Junior loved Speed Stacks, the cups that stack up and collapse onto one another in a dizzying blur of color. Wilson brought Junior to Speed Stack competitions, and he watched hours of Speed Stack Youtube videos online.
Wilson and Junior always had a close connection, an unspoken bond. “You know how when you look at someone, and you both notice the same thing, and you don't even have to say anything, because you already know exactly what the other person's thinking, and you just start laughing?" WIlson said. "That was how me and him were. It was like that."
In 2016, Junior came out as gay. “I remember that day very clearly,” Wilson said. “He was really struggling with it, apparently. Then my daughter was like, 'Mom, Junior needs to tell you something,' and so he told me.”
Wilson said that living in Texas, she was concerned about him getting bullied by others, but told him that she loved him no matter what. They traveled a lot, so that Junior could see life in other cities, places he might want to live when he graduated high school, like Miami or New York.
On Wilson’s birthday in 2018, Junior walked to the grocery store by himself and bought a makeup bag, perfume, and a card. “He didn't have a car, so he walked a long way,” Wilson said. “I’ll never forget that, because he was so selfless, and just always wanting to make sure that I was happy.”
It was in November of 2019 that Junior started to say he was feeling anxious. He was diagnosed with depression, but described the feeling as “electrical charges” of anxiety ricocheting around in his head. In February 2020 he took pills from the medicine cabinet and ended up in the hospital.
“He apologized and said he didn't know why he did that,” Wilson said. “He said would never do anything like that again.” He started seeing two therapists and taking the antidepressant Wellbutrin, but it disrupted his sleep so much that after being awake for three days, he began to hallucinate. He switched to Lexapro. In spring of 2020, he began to have panic attacks at school, and could barely sit through a class.
COVID-19 didn’t make things easier. When Junior was home from school, he was on his phone all of the time, Wilson said. “I would go to look and see what he was doing on his phone, and he would just hide it from me,” she said. He didn’t want to do his homework anymore, which was unusual for him; he thrived in subjects like math and science.
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Wilson tried to make home a fun and stimulating environment. She bought board games. She played relaxing music. She planned activities that got them out of the house in any way possible. But Junior’s obsessive streak—which led to hours of practice with Speed Stacks or binging the Weather Channel—could take a dark turn. Junior would spend hours googling to see whether there was something wrong with him: an illness, a brain tumor, an undiagnosed disease.
Throughout it all, Wilson would ask him if he was thinking about suicide, and he would tell her, “No, mom. No, I’m not.”
“I don't know how much Junior wasn't saying,” Wilson said. “It was normal for Junior to overthink things. Whenever he was looking into colleges, he would know every college acceptance rate. That's just how he was. He would know everything about any topic he was interested in in that moment. Then he started feeling depressed, and he found his way over to [Suicide Solution]. Then, you’re not researching meteorology anymore. We're researching topics that can go down a very dark road.”
Suicide Solution-like communities have existed online for at least 30 years. As Jennings Brown wrote in Vocativ in 2016, suicide forums sprung up in the early days of the internet, when taboo discussions forums found homes on the web. In 1990, a group called “alt.suicide.holiday” was formed. At the time, it was a felony in California to encourage or advise someone to commit suicide. “Had I known, I wouldn’t have said anything about methods,” alt.suicide.holiday's founder, Steven, told Vocativ.
“That’s his only regret with creating the newsgroup and, inadvertently, an online community associated with the deaths of countless people,” Brown wrote. Steven still believed that it was beneficial to create a space where people could talk openly about depression and suicide.
The first known suicide associated with alt.suicide.holiday was David Conibear, a computer software engineer. In September 1992, he wrote on the site how he was going to kill himself, adding in his note that, “Let it be known that [alt.suicide.holiday] was not a promoting cause in my suicide. Had it not been for this group, my best plan to date was to get pissed drunk and dive off the roof of my apartment building.”
In 2003, a 19-year-old college student, Suzy Gonzales, died by suicide; she was a member of alt.suicide.holiday. A local news article reported that on the site, “Gonzales found people who told her that suicide was an acceptable way to end her despair, and who gave her instructions on how to obtain a lethal dose of potassium cyanide and mix it into a deadly cocktail.” The article reported that Gonzales was the 14th person to die from suicide related to alt.suicide.holiday communities. Other deaths reported from alt.suicide.holiday included people who sought out suicide partners, and then traveled to kill themselves together.
People who belonged to alt.suicide.holiday called themselves “ashers” and came up with their own turns of phrase when talking about suicide. "Catching the bus,” which means “to kill yourself," is a phrase still found on Suicide Solution today. The phrase “pro-choice” appeared on alt.suicide.holiday as well. People who try to dissuade others from suicide on Suicide Solution can be accused of being “pro-life,” meaning they aren’t respecting another’s choice to die.
Suicide Solution has had incarnations on the dark web and also a subreddit, until Reddit banned it in 2018. That’s when the website Suicide Solution was created, as BuzzFeed News reported, by pseudonymous co-founders Marquis and Serge.
Buzzfeed News also uncovered that Marquis is an incel, or an “involuntary celibate,” a group often characterized by a violent resentment towards the women they perceive as rejecting them. Marquis owns and manages incel forums, like Incels.co, Incels Wiki, Looksmax.me, the Manosphere, and makes a revenue through donations and ads.
“I know that ‘incels running this [suicide] website’ is a bad look,” Marquis wrote in a deleted Reddit post, Buzzfeed News reported. One former member of Suicide Solution, Alex, told Buzzfeed News that he was banned from the site for asking questions about the ties to incel communities.
“[Marquis] insists that he and Serge did not have any “malicious intentions” when starting the suicide forum — and there’s no public link between them, the woman who killed herself, or any incel activity on the suicide forum,” Tasneem Nashrulla wrote. “Marquis claimed they are the only two incels on staff and that any biases they might have as incels are kept in check by other moderators who are picked from within the community and “trained” to look for predatory behaviors.”
In 2018, Marquis wrote that Suicide Solution “is a pro-choice forum, not a pro-suicide forum. I think sometimes that gets lost in everything that is posted here. I don't believe anyone is going around actively going around encouraging people to commit suicide…We help and support those that are looking for information to end their life.” When reached by email for comment, Marquis told Motherboard, "We ultimately believe that a person does have a right to die as much as they have a right to live. Our community supports either choice."
Throughout their lifetimes, Suicide Solution and similar communities have differed in a substantial way from other online forums: They are lenient in allowing users to talk about how exactly to kill yourself.
In 2017, a person asked the group questions about the logistics of hanging, and someone responded, “Practice and preparation are key here.” In a post in 2018, one person asked: “Can we ask questions about methods here? Or is that against the rules like it was post rule-change on Reddit? I wanted to run my plan for a method by you guys, if possible.” Marquis replied, “Yes, it’s fine to ask questions about methods here.” People have posted requests for others to look over their materials and set ups, or provide advice where to purchase chemicals in the countries they live in.
Marquis told Motherboard that "Not all people that seek out methods will go through with it, and that's okay too, but we still believe that people should have access to that information. If that information wasn't on our forum, they'll just find it elsewhere on the internet. The information that is listed on the site can be found easily on many other websites."
Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State and suicide expert, said that no matter how Suicide Solution rationalizes their community, he considers it an “atrocity.” Many people have suicidal thoughts or ideation, Joiner said. But to actually die, they need the access to the means to harm themselves. This is the logic behind “means reduction,” a suicide prevention tactic that seeks to reduce a person’s access to lethal means by which they might try to kill themselves. Without that access, they can’t take any action, and as long as they have not done so, there is the possibility of them becoming no longer suicidal.
For example, access to guns is a well-recognized risk factor for suicide—by some estimates it can triple an individual's risk of dying by suicide, not just for the gun owner but for everyone who lives in the gun owner's household.
Because Suicide Solution allows such blatant description of methods and instructions, and is not only a place to talk about feelings, Joiner said it can be thought of as a digital version of “access” to lethal means—by describing, explaining, and comparing different methods a person may not have had access to, or attempted, on their own.
Also, while people without access to guns are less likely to die after a suicide attempt than people with guns, the detailed discussions of methods on Suicide Solution could be making other, usually less-deadly, methods more fatal. One systematic review from 2002 found that the majority of people who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide. This means that making various methods more accessible, and more likely to end someone's life, is an especially deadly combination.
“A peer to peer connection is actually very therapeutic and helpful and understandable,” Joiner said. “That element should be a part of the treatment toolbox.” But that doesn’t include people talking specifically about ways to harm themselves, Joiner said. “It focuses on the support and the growth and the hope and the troubleshooting and the problem solving. What these groups are doing is actively harmful and even evil.”
On the morning of April 25, Wilson woke up and lay in bed for 15 minutes, texting on her phone. She had planned a fishing trip that day for Junior, an activity to get them out of the house.
She walked downstairs to his room, which had double doors. The left side door opened to a view of his bed, and the right opened to his bathroom. Wilson opened the left door to tell him to wake up, but he wasn’t there. She opened the right door.
“I started screaming, and my boyfriend came downstairs," she said. "He could tell by the way that I was screaming that something was really, really wrong.”
Wilson's boyfriend started CPR, while Wilson called 911.
The paramedics brought Junior to the hospital, and Wilson followed. When she arrived, she was told they weren’t able to save him. He had no brain activity. “It was just very unreal,” she said. “It did not feel real. I'm just in there holding my son's hand, and I'm singing the song that I used to sing to him when he was little. Why is this happening to my son?”
Back in his bedroom, Junior’s phone was plugged into the charger on his bed. It took Wilson about a week to type in the passcode, which Junior had left for her. The Notes app was open, and there was a message he had left to his family. When Wilson closed the app, Suicide Solution was the next thing she saw.
Wilson’s Facebook Group now has over a thousand members. Members post about their loved ones who died who belonged to the site.
Another member of the group, Jackie Bieber's, daughter Shawn died in 2019 at the age of 25. “She was always the sweetest girl,” Bieber said. “She was just a very pure soul, that inner child was always there, even through her young adulthood. She was very goofy, always happy when she was younger. She loved anime. She loved music. She was very creative, always drawing, doodling, painting something.”
Bieber had Shawn when she was 17, and she was a single mom. Shawn was there at Bieber’s high school graduation. “It was always me and her. We were so close. She was my world.”
Bieber has been speaking out about Suicide Solution since Shawn died. "I need to educate people, because my friends' kids could be on this, too,” she said. She and her husband have nearly 10,000 screenshots of the website, which they shared with Wilson.
Shawn felt depressed and had severe social anxiety before she found Suicide Solution. During her middle school years, she was bullied. “The preppier girls or the more popular girls would pick on her and call her ugly, which she wasn’t,” Bieber said. “They would just call her names and fat and things like that." Around 16 years old, her social anxiety became even more extreme. Bieber would see Shawn shaking with fear when she had to leave the house.
Shawn went to college at Penn State in the Eberly School of Science, but she dropped out because of anxiety. She started to take jobs, like janitorial work at Hershey Park, where she didn’t have to talk to people.
“It was so bad to the point where she could not leave the house even if someone was outside,” Bieber said. “I could see her open the door, shut it, wait and then leave. When she went in public, no eye contact. Her head would be down. She just got so bad.” Her last job was at an Amazon warehouse packing boxes.
In a post on Suicide Solution from 2019, Shawn wrote, “The main reason I want to kill myself is because of work. It sucks so much that I have to be a slave in order to survive in this shit hole…I work in a warehouse. I wish I could get a better job but I’m too stupid and my social anxiety really holds me back.”
Bieber said Shawn tried multiple medications, and saw psychologists and psychiatrists. Once, at a primary care doctor’s appointment, the doctor asked, "Are you thinking of killing yourself?" Bieber said that Shawn said no.
On May 22 Shawn asked Bieber if she was going to stay home that day—Bieber had decided to work from home. “She goes, 'Oh,' and that was it," Bieber said. And then she walked away."
As the afternoon went on, Bieber sent Shawn a text, since she hadn't come out of her room. Around 4 p.m. she knocked on her door and didn’t hear anything. She opened the door, and Shawn was lying on the floor on top of the sheets and comforter. Bieber thought, "That's weird. Did she fall?"
She tried to shake her awake. She couldn't figure out what was wrong. She didn’t feel a pulse. She started to do CPR and called 911. “I couldn't get her back," she said. "I was just praying that they could do something. They didn't. I knew she was gone. I remember, when I felt her, she was so cold."
In a pink notebook that Bieber found later, Shawn outlined the schedule for taking different medications, according to instructions provided on Suicide Solution.
“If my daughter had never found this site, I really feel she would be here today,” Bieber said.
From Shawn's posts on site, we can get a sense of what happened from her perspective on that day, and how other Suicide Solution members responded to her. First, she detailed what doses she had taken. One person said: “Good luck with everything, my fellow JoJo fan. May your travel be peaceful and successful.” Another: “Wish you success.”
In a reply, Shawn wrote: "Also I feel bad because my mom is just down the hall from me.”
After a few others wished her luck, one user wrote: “Good luck. For some reason I’m not 100% this will work because your mother is down the hall. If she hears noises coming from your room, she will come in and will call an ambulance if you’re in a bad way. I’m not trying to stop you, I’m just saying.”
Shawn replied: “Just took it. I’m fucking terrified.” That was her last message.
“I will never, ever forget the feeling I got the first time I ever saw the site,” Bieber said. “There was no confusion. I knew these people helped her die.”
Bieber has been seeking to pass legislation, working with Republican State Representative Dawn Keefer to introduce “Shawn’s Law,” which would increase the criminal penalties for people who are convicted of encouraging or aiding another person to kill themselves. The Pennsylvania House approved the bill earlier this year, and it is now going to the state Senate.
Wilson recently started Fix The 26, an organization trying to shut down Suicide Solution by holding website providers more liable. The company Cloudflare provides DNS and protective proxy services for the stie and, according to WIlson, has not responded meaningfully in her pleas for them to address the content on Suicide Solution. Cloudflare did not respond to requests for comment.
Fix The 26 wants to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—which, in 26 words, provides legal protection for such tech companies as Cloudflare. The law says, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Fix the 26 supports a modification to the law such as one that's included in a bill introduced by Republican senators Roger Wicker, Lindsey Graham, and Marsha Blackburn. Their bill, The Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act, would more specifically not allow content that promotes terrorism, is determined to be “unlawful,” and promotes “self-harm” to be protected under Section 230. Wilson said that this bill is currently the only Section 230 bill that mentions self-harm specifically, and that's why she endorses it; she would endorse any similar bill that called out self-harm.
As Section 230 is written now, Cloudflare is unlikely to ever face any liability for what occurs on Suicide Solution, said Aaron Mackey, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In a recent case with some similarities, Kristanalea Dyroff sued a website after her son allegedly bought heroin from a person he encountered on the site Experience Project. He died from an overdose. The Ninth Circuit ruling was that the site was not liable since the site itself was not involved in encouraging any illegal activity by its users.
Similarly, though Cloudflare provides hosting services for websites, it is providing a general service that’s legal and open to anyone, said Mackey, whether it’s Suicide Solution or a forum about Game of Thrones.
In contrast, in the case Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, the website was found liable for the discriminatory actions of the users of its site, because the site had dropdown menus that prompted people to choose the race or gender of their desired roommate, which is illegal. “The website itself, [Roommates] was actually playing a direct role in the creation of the content that was illegal,” Mackey said.
It's important to note that Section 230 doesn’t immunize the users of websites who are doing illegal things. The person who sold the heroin to Dyroff's son was prosecuted, though the website was not. The operators of Suicide Solution, like Marquis and Serge, or its users, could be held liable if they were found to be violating any laws.
“230 wouldn't prevent survivors from trying to identify any individuals who violated civil law or state criminal laws that prohibit people from assisting in suicide or a wrongful death claim against a user who was speaking with them,” Mackey said.
Assisting someone with suicide is illegal in most U.S. states. But on Suicide Solution, the line between pro-choice forum and actively encouraging or assisting with suicide is walked very finely. While experts and family members can construe the site as outright suicide assistance, the activity on the site doesn’t necessarily meet the legal definition.
In 2019, Marquis wrote that they had checked every thread that Shawn had posted and “there was no encouraging of suicide from anyone on this forum by our definition nor legal definition…Shawn made a thread on the website saying she was terrified, but the replies on the thread were well wishes. There's nothing there resembling or even insinuating that suicide was the best route.”
In his email, Marquis said further that "Our forum operates within the confines of the law and we follow it to the letter. We do not assist or encourage suicide. People are responsible for their own actions at the end of the day and there's not much we can do about that. The information that is listed on our website is posted by users and we have a clear ruleset that actively discourages breaking international, local, or the member's country of origin laws."
That's not good enough for Bieber. “You can't say things without there being a consequence,” she said. “There is liability for this. Someone is responsible for this. That would be like me going up to somebody on a bridge and say, ‘Hey, congratulations. Good luck.’ You just don't…you help save their life. I'll just keep fighting to get them all shut down. If it takes my entire life, I will.”
Websites like Suicide Solution force us to recognize the gaps in our knowledge about the internet and suicide, and how central a role it may play in people's decision- making. It prompts us to ask: What are the safe ways to talk about suicide online? Are there any? What kinds of online conversations put people at higher risk? Are there any kinds that could be helpful? These are not questions with obvious answers.
We know that being exposed to suicide in your personal social networks can increase risk. Anna Mueller, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, has shown that teens who know about a friend’s suicide attempt are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide one year later. “We’re all exposed to suicide at some point, whether it’s through reading Romeo and Juliet or simply watching the news,” Mueller wrote in The Conversation. “But exposure to a friend’s suicide attempt or death appears to transform the distant idea of suicide into something very real: a meaningful, tangible cultural script that youth may follow to cope with distress.”
It's for this reason that the media has been given guidelines for how to report on suicide, which include not describing methods in detail, or not referring to suicide as a “growing problem” or “epidemic.” After the release of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, Google searches for suicide rose by 20 percent in 19 days.
These figures imply that there is a right way and a wrong way to talk about suicide, and that the “wrong” way will lead to people dying. When the internet comes into the mix, and people have access to varying kinds of information, perspectives, and are forging close emotional relationships with strangers, it’s incredibly hard to tease apart the impacts those conversations could be having.
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It makes the whole subject incredibly fraught and dangerous, with vulnerable lives on the line. But hand-wringing, moderation, and fear can also foster the creation of communities like Suicide Solution, where people comment on how moderated and stifled they feel on other forums, unable to fully express what they're really thinking. Quelling all discussions of suicide, leaving people to process complex and stigmatized feelings alone, doesn’t help either. Feeling supported and as if you're not a burden to others is a critical piece of suicide prevention.
Mueller said that we can’t necessarily extrapolate her findings on suicide contagion to a website like Suicide Solution. When thinking about social contagion, she said, you have to think about something called “social selection,” which is essentially why people have arrived in a particular place or relationship, or online space, in the first place.
How we select into relationships or situations plays a major role in our vulnerability. In the case of Suicide Solution, for example, is the site itself a risk for contagion, or are the people who find their way there so vulnerable already that its effects are negligible? “You have to think about what people bring to the interaction before you can then determine how that interaction impacts their vulnerability to suicide,” Mueller said.
“The rabbit hole goes deep. Folks are going to create spaces to talk about suicide the way they want to.”
If she were doing prevention work in this space, Mueller said, she would want to focus on the factors that brought people to the site. “I’m definitely not arguing that this website is like a good thing at all and would definitely argue the opposite,” Mueller said. But she thinks there are interesting scientific questions here: How powerful is participation in a website like this? Why do people participate?
April Foreman, a psychologist on the executive board of the American Association of Suicidology, said that we have almost no scientific evidence on how people who experience suicidal pain talk in ways that help each other or hurt each other online. “There's a lot of fearfulness, a lot of moral panic around it,” she said. “There are, of course, real losses like these families who've lost folks.”
But she said that the bottom line is, as much outrage surrounds these websites, there is no way to fully control the way people talk about suicide in digital spaces. She’s seen even more extreme forums on the dark web.
“The rabbit hole goes deep,” she said. “Folks are going to create spaces to talk about suicide the way they want to. There are going to be folks that are going to be happy with professional crisis counselors who want to get together and talk about their lived experience in ways that you and I or loss survivors would feel really comfortable with, but people are going to make spaces to talk how they want to talk, and that's just how it is.”
Only a few studies have tried to systemically look at the accessibility of suicide-related information online, and how that impacts suicidal ideation and actions. Pro-suicide websites, according to a study from 2011, include “the description of technical, chemical and anatomic details, the expression of honorable and clearly individualistic ideals, the depictions of morbid bodily violence.”
One study found that pro-suicide sites like Suicide Solution are “rare and marginal, while sites dedicated to information about suicide as well as sites dedicated to prevention policy and advocacy are readily accessible.” A paper from 2012 found that searches for “suicide” resulted mostly in search results from institutional organizations. Suicidal people who use the internet for suicide-related purposes are more suicidal than nonsuicide-related users.
Research from 2008 looked for the kinds of resources a suicidal person might come across through searching online. They found that suicide-neutral and anti-suicide pages came up most frequently, and pro-suicide sites were less frequent: 115 suicide-neutral and 109 anti-suicide, compared to 41 pro-suicide. The authors concluded that mental health professionals should be asking their patients about what websites they’re visiting, what information is on those sites, and how visiting those sites is impacting their thoughts and feelings.
While studies have found that media reports on suicide can have an impact on suicide deaths, especially those that include details of methods, another study from 2017 found that just because suicide searches increase, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a meaningful relationship to suicide rates. One paper found that while a movie showing a suicide increased suicidality in some, a film that showed a person overcoming a suicidal crisis could increase resilience.
Foreman thinks this scattering of sometimes decades-old research isn't enough. She thinks we need aggressive investigations to address the gaps in our knowledge, an effort hindered by a lack of investment, she said. The money spent by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) doesn’t match the magnitude of the problem.
In 2017, NIH spent five times as much money on sleep as it did on suicide research. In 2019, spending on suicide was $117 million and suicide prevention was $60 million; spending on the microbiome was $766 million. This is not to say we should take money away from other research domains, but that we need to invest more in understanding the complexities behind suicidal ideation and risk, as we're doing with other health issues.
NIH officials told USA Today that suicide research could fall under other spending categories, like “mental health,” but Foreman still thinks we need specific, targeted research focused solely on suicide if we’re ever going to understand the answers to hard questions. What’s the best, least dangerous, way to talk about suicide? Does that change if it happens online?
“In the U.S., there is this very poorly funded public health infrastructure around suicide,” Foreman said. “While a child was on that site, it may have made things worse. But their child was suicidal before. They didn't just show up at that site. As angry as we can be about these websites, we're holding these websites so much more accountable than the public health system.”
The chilling truth is that we just don’t know what kinds of vulnerabilities are more susceptible to different kinds of online discussions. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had science about that?” Foreman said.
Suicide prevention can ignore the omnipotence of the online world. If a young adult tells their doctor they are feeling suicidal, Foreman said, it’s not even the standard of care to ask what kind of websites they visit frequently. Suicide Solution reveals how we need to educate parents and providers about the internet, and how people with suicidal thoughts are using it.
Taking Suicide Solution's data and following its users over time could be one way to learn more about the community, and what parts of it are dangerous. “That’s something we could do right now,” Foreman said. “We could fund that if we wanted to.”
A similar project that Foreman is involved in called OurDataHelps.org. It asks people with lived experience with suicide ideation to donate their social media data on an ongoing basis—from the past and into the future. From that, they can start to look at what social media behaviors seem to be predictive of a suicide attempt. Families of people who have died could donate the digital footprints of the people that they’ve lost, Foreman said, to help us understand if there are differences in their online behaviors compared to those who never attempt suicide.
“Because we are in a digital world, we are interacting with computers and the Internet daily,” said Darla Still, a doctoral candidate in the School of Sociology at the University of Arizona. Our suicide research needs to account for that.
Still has been researching how people go online to seek support for suicide, and did research on the subreddit Suicide Watch, which is human moderated and has extensive rules and guidelines for talking about suicide. The community is public—there are no private chat servers, which Suicide Solution uses.
In research that hasn't yet been published, Still scraped all the posts and comments from Suicide Watch from 2009 to 2017, and did computational, quantitative, and qualitative analysis of these data. She found that people weren’t always blatantly asking for help, but sharing statements about their feelings and behaviors. The ability to be anonymous, using throwaway accounts, was related to receiving support from others. Many of the posts were from people who didn’t have health insurance or ways to pay for ongoing support. People were able to complain to each other about suicide hotlines, if they didn’t find them helpful.
“These communities stand to be a positive force for people,” Still said, meaning it's not a given than an online forum where people discuss suicide is always harmful. “People return to the site and provide praise, saying that they have appreciated the support they received, that they've not taken their life."
That's what Marquis believes can take place on Suicide Solution; he claims that many people on the forum are helped by its existence. "There have been countless people, including myself, that have been on the brink of suicide and have been immensely helped by talking to people on the forum," he told Motherboard. "We have a Recovery section for people that wish to take that path and there are resources there to help them do that, too. For me and many others, knowing that there is a way out is sometimes enough to keep pushing through life."
Bart Andrews, a clinical psychologist and vice president of clinical operations at Behavioral Health Response in St. Louis and a suicide attempt survivor, said that he thinks that's the opposite of what's going on at Suicide Solution. "Those folks are actively encouraging, supporting, people ending their life," he said.
Andrews said that sites like Suicide Solution aren't as open and free as they might like to portray themselves as being. For example, people who try to discourage people from killing themselves, questioning their motives, can be accused of being “pro-life."
"Actually, you can't say whatever you want,” Andrews said.
In response, Marquis said, "Just as we don't want people encouraging suicide, we don't want people trying to 'save' people either. All we can do is provide information and not try to sway a person to one side or another, but to let them do their own research and to let them make that choice for themselves."
Reddit's Suicide Watch has a guide on how to avoid encouraging suicidal thoughts. “There's a crucial difference between empathizing with feelings and responding non-judgmentally to suicidal thoughts, and in any way endorsing, encouraging, or validating suicidal intentions or hopeless beliefs,” the guide says. “Anything that condones suicide, even passively, encourages suicide. It isn't supportive and does not help.” Suicide Watch does not promote the discussion of methods—a major difference between it and Suicide Solution. Still said it’s also not a place for philosophical discussion of suicide either.
The staff of Suicide Forum, another online suicide discussion community, wrote in a post that they understand the desire to read about methods. “It is common to become fixated on dying and ways to die as that is the only thing we are sure will make it all stop. Most of the members of this site found us by researching suicidal thoughts and suicide methods.”
But Suicide Forum also doesn’t allow discussion of methods, because it can so easily become a fixation. “It is already hard to stop the constant thoughts and visualizations for many, so every mention of specific methods makes them lose track of all else to enter that cycle of visualizing. They want the pain to end and the only way they can see to end it is by dying. Telling them about different methods to die is nothing more than a distraction from that other pain they feel and may help them feel like perhaps the pain will not be forever after all. What is wrong with this distraction? This type of distraction still allows for only one way for the pain to end. It is not a distraction from suicidal thoughts, it is distraction from all else but suicidal thoughts, and that distraction will allow other issues to simply fester in size and difficulty in resolving.”
The moderators of TakeThisLife.com, another online suicide forum, write in their guidelines that they “encourage members to participate without holding back, as 'letting it all out' can feel very good and help people who may otherwise feel that they are the only ones with those thoughts or feelings.” But they also write that mention of suicide methods is not allowed, and that “goodbye” posts, “plans” or “dates,” and endorsements of others' plans, methods, or goodbyes are proscribed.
"I would argue that with its guidelines, the [Suicide Watch] community does a better job at not making it so much of a real option and more of acknowledging that it's a serious situation and that we're here to support," Still said. "I would be inclined to believe [Suicide Solution] is more blurring that fine line between supporting and normalizing with its emphasis on being a pro-choice community.”
Bart Andrews doesn’t harbor any positive feelings about Suicide Solution. “There's an encouraging element," he said. "There's a normalization of it that I think is damaging, no doubt about it. Finding a website where people who are responding and engaging and say, oh, yeah, this [method] is even better, I think this social persuasion element is so much more damaging than just finding general information on a Web site.”
But he feels strongly that the answer isn’t to censor talk about suicide. “That is that exact opposite mentality that we should have here,” he said. “This idea that if we don’t talk about these things, it’ll just go away or it won't be as big of a problem is exactly what brings people to these sites in the first place.”
Andrews said he worries that theories of suicide contagion, media influence, and sites like Suicide Solution send the message that talking about suicide at all is dangerous, when just certain specific factors increase risk, like a focus on methods. That notion could end up shutting down spaces where people can go to express themselves—a crucial need for a suicidal person. “The experience of being a person at risk of suicide is something that people don’t have control over,” Andrews said. “It’s not like people decide to have suicidal thoughts."
Witte said that she thinks it’s easy for people, especially without lived experience, to say, “Let’s just get rid of all of it.” But doing so denies the potential benefits of people connecting over their thoughts.
The internet doesn’t happen to someone, said Dese'Rae L. Stage, a suicide attempt survivor and creator of Live Through This, a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors across the United States. “These people are getting something out of this,” Stage said. “The other side of the standard narrative that the 'internet is bad,' is that people who need community are finding it.”
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In a thread about how people found their way to Suicide Solution, one person wrote that, “I was sold when I found that this site allowed open discussion about suicide (none of the platitudes, guilt-tripping, pro-life rhetoric and bullshit), and did not censor people from talking about suicide and death. Furthermore, the main reason I came was the open discussion about methods. To this day, I do not know of many other forums that are as active, easy to use, and supportive as this one and allows discussion about suicide methods.” In 2020, a user wrote, “I've received more genuine support and empathy in this forum than anywhere else ever in my life. No doctor, psychiatrist or therapist could ever come close to this kind of honest and sincere support.”
“There’s something that’s pulling people towards this,” Tracy Witte said,the professor of psychology at Auburn University. “Right now it seems like the choices appear only to be complete censorship or letting it be a free for all. Maybe there’s something in-between. I don’t know the answer to that.”
Even among some of the site's users, there is some awareness that the site can cross a line. In September, a member wrote that other forums could be “so heavily moderated that you literally cannot even discuss how you're feeling through fear of 'triggering' others.” He continued that there were parts of Suicide Solution that made him uncomfortable. “I'm not going to pretend for one second that there are not people on here who seem to encourage suicide. And when I say encourage, please don't come back at me with the argument that other users are just providing information and are not encouraging anything, because while this may be true for the vast majority of members, I do believe that some members do in fact encourage it…While the official website position may be that this is a peer to peer support forum that doesn't encourage anybody either way, we as members must act to protect ourselves from predators who will seek to take advantage of vulnerable people.”
In response, a user wrote that they sometimes want to ask people if they are sure they want to kill themselves, “but then I check myself because I'm afraid that my comments will be perceived as being too 'pro-life', or that they might even be seen as insulting the intelligence of those who they are aimed at.”
Marquis told Motherboard, "There has been little encouragement of suicide on the website. What you may have seen is people supporting and respecting the decision that the person has ultimately decided to make."
Suicide Solution forces us to come face to face with the fact that a lot of people do think about suicide, and want their suicidal thoughts regarded as valid and backed by their lived experience.
And that suicide prevention can be so fixated on saving lives that it neglects the quality of life that it is fighting to preserve. Many people who are suicidal don’t have mental health issues like depression, even though that’s our common perception of a suicidal person. Social risk factors, like family, work, poverty, and illness, can play powerful roles, too.
Acknowledging that desire for respect and contextual factors, rather than treating every person who wants to kill themselves as if they’ve lost their grip on reality, could help build alternative, safer communities for people with suicidal thoughts.
“We lock people up for having suicidal thoughts, we treat them terribly,” Mueller said. “We don't always treat people with respect. We don't always respect their autonomy or treat them as experts in our own mental health. I'm not pro-sucide. But I am pro-compassionate help and compassionate care that treats people with respect.”
Bieber said that she knows that people with suicidal thoughts are scared they're going to be "locked up." "That they're going to be forced against their will in some way," she said. "To create a safe space for them to openly talk about the way that they feel, that they want to die…it's hard. But there should be something where they feel comfortable where they can feel like, 'I'm not alone. Other people feel this way.'"
What need is Suicide Solution meeting—even dangerously so—and how do we create systems and supports around the person so that they don't have to turn only to the internet to feel supported?
Anna Borges, a journalist who wrote a viral piece about suicidal ideation in The Outline in 2019, wrote in her newsletter on suicidality that not being able to talk about her suicidal thoughts makes living with them harder.
“The weightiness of the confession, the impossibility of explaining that it both is and isn’t as serious as it sounds,” Borges wrote. “I don’t always want to be alive. Yes, I mean it. No, you shouldn’t be afraid for me. No, I’m not in danger of killing myself right now. Yes, I really mean it.”
She wrote about her worry about what people would think and do if she was honest about her thoughts. “But then I think: Isn’t there middle ground between hypervigilance and complete secrecy?" she wrote. "What if we acknowledged the possibility of suicidality all around us, normalized asking and checking in? If people talked about feeling suicidal — not joked, as we’ve all started to do online, but really talked — as much as they talked about feeling depressed or anxious, would we finally be forced to see how common it is and start creating space for these conversations? Would it be the worst thing in the world if we started talking about not wanting to be alive, and what might help keep us here?”
I thought about this passage as I wrestled with how to write about a site like Suicide Solution. Even publishing an article at this length, that includes details of what makes the site dangerous, is a controversial choice. Suicide survivors and researchers alike cautioned against publishing the site's real name. At least one expert I spoke to was hesitant to be interviewed at all because of the fear that they would contribute to driving more people to the site. And, in fact, it might. In one thread I read on Suicide Solution about how people found the website, several users referenced a past VICE article from 2015. Our choice to not to use Suicide Solution's real name is a reflection of the uncertainty that plagues this arena— about how the internet confers risk, how the ease of finding the site contributes to that risk, and the variability in how people will use the forum.
Still, Foreman said that it makes sense to think that if we just control all the information online about suicide, then people won’t die by suicide anymore. But Suicide Solution's many incarnations throughout the decades are enough proof that a community like this one may never fully disappear. Trying too hard to stifle it could only drive it back to the Dark Web, out of sight.
“Suicide was a leading cause of death for youth before the internet and before social media, before bulletin boards,” Foreman said. “It has gone up some, but it was a leading cause of death before all of those things because something else is going on. At the end of the day, you could get rid of that website. And I don't think that you would see an appreciable change at all in in suicide deaths.”
Instead, she thinks the more critical question to ask is: What need is Suicide Solution meeting—even dangerously so—and how do we create systems and supports around the person so that they don't have to turn only to the internet to feel supported?
People who have never experienced suicidal thoughts need to better understand the difference between ideation and action, giving people the space to express their thoughts without judgement, while providing resources and discouragement from taking action on those thoughts. Conflating suicidal thoughts with actions—when they don’t always go hand in hand—makes people feel like they can’t express what they’re thinking. It drives them to places like Suicide Solution, where anything goes.
“I think knowing that not every suicidal thought is a crisis is important,” Stage said. "When I have someone come to see me and they say they’re suicidal, I still feel fearful. I feel like I might make a mistake, might say the wrong thing. I don’t think there’s a way to not feel fearful, honestly. But letting that drive our decisions is a problem.”
Mueller encourages people, especially parents, to get training in suicide prevention. Living Works is one program she recommended; its participants practice how to talk about suicide with family or friends.
Having a place to talk to others with lived experience can help people see that it’s possible to feel better. “It makes you realize you really can survive these things. And things change," said Cathy Barber, a senior researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Research Center.
It can be incredibly healing to have a place to talk about how flawed the mental health system is: How your first, third, or fifth therapist might not click; how a suicide hotline might just recite platitudes that don’t resonate with you; how going to an emergency room was an alienating and traumatizing experience; how it feels to be bullied, or depressed, or anxious.
"Suicide Solution is a community of people who are in horrible pain," Foreman said. "A bunch of people in horrible pain found each other and are doing some things that could increase all their risk of dying. Meanwhile, we've left them all the responsibility. We've decided to not invest in understanding and relieving their pain. If we did something about people's pain that was reliable, helped and had good science behind it, you wouldn’t need websites like that."
On the morning of Junior's funeral service, Wilson lay motionless on her couch with a crushing sense of disbelief. "I was sitting there, trying to wrap my head around what was actually happening that day," she said "Like, 'Wow, I'm going to my son's funeral,' you know? I just want it to go away, the pain. And it won't."
How does someone cope with losing a child, a friend, a cousin—like the members of Wilson's Facebook group—while grappling with their belonging to the Suicide Solution community? There are no good answers here either. The grief of loss survivors is a part of this story too: their trauma and the lingering questions they have about when, how, and where they might have intervened. So many have already been lost because of all that we don't know.
"My son never gave me any problem," Wilson said. "He was a good kid."
Wilson said she won't stop trying to shut down Suicide Solution. "We're not going to fix mental health overnight," she said. "It's not going to happen and there definitely needs to be changes. But there definitely doesn't need to be this."
Along with the legislation she's working on, Bieber said she's also focused on advocacy, and telling Shawn's story. She wants mental health professionals to become more aware of what's happening online, and how young people are using the internet to talk about mental health.
"When I was younger, I didn't have the internet access like that to information," Wilson agreed. "I'm not talking about just Suicide Solution, I'm talking about just anything in general. You have the whole world at your fingertips."
When Bieber shared screenshots with other parents she knew, she said many of their kids were aware of the site already. "Us as parents, we had no idea that this is out here," Bieber said. "But our kids knew about it."
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741, or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org for more information.
Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.