Better support needed for suicide surfers
Better online support services for suicidal people is more important than shutting down websites showing ways to die, a research academic from the University of Queensland says.
Dr Keith Harris found in his recently-completed PhD in Psychology that suicidal people using the internet had not necessarily made up their minds to die.
This meant providing professional online support was more important than having a firewall to prevent online search engines finding sites which used words such as "suicide", Dr Harris said.
"Australian laws prohibit pro-suicide sites, sites that tell you how to commit suicide or encourage you to commit suicide – but that is not effective," he said.
"I don’t think that is the solution. We need to develop useful sites. We need to give these people a reason to go to professional sites, rather than eliminating bad ones."
Dr Harris said suicidal people debated in their own minds whether to take their own lives and websites could trigger either positive or negative messages which could influence this.
"I believe people have an internal debate about whether to live or die before they decide to commit suicide.
"They establish reasons for living or dying. They use the internet to conclude that debate. One click can be a life or death decision."
Dr Harris gathered information from more than 1000 suicidal people in a confidential online survey as part of his studies, showing about half of them were what has become known as Suicide Surfers.
These people used the internet to search for sites offering both support and others explaining ways to commit suicide, he said.
Suicide Surfers tended to be at a greater risk of dying and were also more likely to seek friends, romantic relationships and sexual partners online.
"They are very active online. They may be trying to get help. They are less likely to go to a mental health professional or family and friend."
This differed from the other half of the people in the study, who did not use the internet to search for sites about suicide.
What all the people in the study had in common was a need for information, social support and an outlet for their thoughts and feelings.
"They want to understand what is wrong with them. They may miss a significant other or someone who understands them. They want to meet people like themselves.
"I had a few comments from participants in the survey. They felt better after doing the survey. It was the first time they had an opportunity to talk about these things."
While there were some mental health sites to support suicidal people, they sometimes talked down to people, did not allow anonymity or did not cover the subjects which most interested suicidal people.
Dr Harris said his study involved more than 1000 people from 40 countries, aged from 18 to 74 years. Many had symptoms of depression.
The group at the greatest risk of suicide was young gay or bisexual men, because they were in the group least likely to seek face-to-face help from doctors or support services.
It led to calls from Dr Harris for support service workers dealing with suicidal people to take a different approach when talking to gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
Dr Harris has presented his findings to the International Association of Suicide Prevention in Ireland; the American Association of Suicidology in the US; Chulalongkorn University in Thailand; and the European Symposium of Suicide Research and Suicidal Behaviour in Slovenia.
(Source: University of Queensland: August 2009)