Contemplating Life and Death, one website at a time

Dia Rekhi @ Chennai, Aug 5

On the internet, one can learn to make biriyani or even a bomb. While it empowers, it also provides a platform for exploitation of impressionable minds. Among other things, it can teach people with depression or suicidal tendencies the most effective ways to end their lives. Pro-suicide sites are among the most dangerous sites on the internet today and all one needs to do to access them is to type some basic keywords that open up to a deep, dark world where Death is romanticised and Life is ridiculed.

The treacherous world of suicide-coaxing forums came to light after the tragic death of a 14-year-old boy, who allegedly committed suicide by jumping off his building terrace in Mumbai on July 31. Police suspect that the boy could have taken the drastic step as a result of the nefarious Blue Whale Game that makes people perform tasks for 50 days before encouraging them to “win” the game by killing themselves.

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/mumbai-suicide-boy-kills-self-teenager-suicide-andheri-blue-whale-online-game-online-challenge-bluewhale/1/1015159.html

Pro-suicide sites are easily found online. In fact, a simple search with the right keywords will have the sites featured right below the Government’s suicide helpline. This is not all. There are allegedly countless others available on the ‘deep web’ (the part of the World Wide Web that is not discoverable by means of standard search engines). The biggest challenge with pro-suicide discussion forums is that many of them go by seemingly harmless names that one would never associate with suicide.

“There is currently no mechanism to counter such ‘poisonous’ sites, internationally or in India,” said cyber law expert, Pavan Duggal. “However, this is the new reality and it is time that we wake up to it. While it is impossible for the Government to monitor the internet, they could set clear guidelines that make it binding for service providers or intermediaries to remove such content when notified of its existence.”

It is not just websites but also popular media that is contributing to the menace. The Netflix show ’13 Reasons Why’ is being criticised the world over for its glorification of suicide. Its impact is such that a 17-year-old girl in Chennai began cutting herself and believed that the pain was pleasurable and felt there was no purpose to her life.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/07/31/internet-searches-on-suicide-went-up-after-13-reasons-why/?utm_term=.89edcc8fc9dd

“You can’t fight the internet,” said psychologist Smruthy Nair. “It is foolish for parents to even think that their children will not look elsewhere, if they don’t provide them with access to the internet. We need to provide children with access to counsellors and therapists without being stigmatised. It should be normalised to the extent that people should visit a doctor if they have a cold and a therapist if they have depression.”

However, this too comes with its own challenges as the number of psychiatrists and counsellors per Indian is abysmally low. According to the World Health Organisation in 2015, India has 0.301 psychiatrists for every 1,00,000 people. That’s one trained mental health specialist for 3,00,000 Indians. Tamil Nadu needs to pay special attention to these  figures as the State ranks second in India with 15,777 suicides as per the National Crime Records Bureau report for 2015.

“Parents need to stop living in denial about the fact that their children might have psychological issues,” said Sneha Hindocha, a psychological counsellor. “They tend to take it personally and get defensive about their upbringing which is absolutely irrelevant! Parents need to be more in touch with reality and be more sensitive and accepting if their child confide in them.”

While suicide has generally been associated with the ‘individual,’ it is remarkable how much of a part ‘society’ plays in the act of committing suicide.

“Suicide is not a purely psychological incident,” explained J Sasitha, Head of the Department of Sociology at Stella Maris College. “It has a lot to do with alienation and disenchantment from society. Those who do not get comfort from their primary group or family tend to seek comfort elsewhere. Today, these children believe that they will get that ‘comfort’ online as the internet provides them with anonymity and the opportunity to interact with others who reinforce their dubious notions.”

Psychologists and counsellors alike concede that communication between parents and children the key. They said that if a child trusts their parents to understand them, things will not escalate to such an extent.

“The issue arises when parents are not sensitive to their child’s needs,” Hindocha said. “Often, those who commit suicide suffer from depression or anxiety or just feel they have been deprived of appreciation. When they begin interacting with others on such forums, they get positive reinforcement which can drive them to the extent of taking their life as well.” However, she added that it is not the parents alone who must keep a watchful eye but even friends, relatives and colleagues who should take cognisance of changes in behaviour.

“It is imperative to pick up on signs,” said Nair. “The most common symptoms would be isolation or wildly abnormal mood swings. Romanticizing and talking about death as an ideal escape mechanism, or complaining that living is pointless is a glaring red flag. Marked differences in sleep patterns and appetite or disinterest in activities that they previously enjoyed are other telling signs.”

However, it isn’t just youngsters who are at risk. For Kalyani Rajendran,* (name changed) her life changed overnight when she was diagnosed with a Chronic Autoimmune Disorder. From being someone who was constantly on-the-move, making tough decisions on a daily basis, both at work and at home, she was reduced to being caged in at home owing to her ill health. It was at this time that the television and YouTube became her only sources of entertainment.

“She was initially using it to watch cookery videos and for music,” said her daughter Madumitha Rajendran* (name changed). “After a while, she began having suicidal thoughts and began searching for other content on YouTube and came across suggested videos that were extremely morbid. These videos would speak of how if you pay the ambulance staff or bribe the nurse at the hospital, they would kill you without anyone finding out.”

Striking down these sites, however, is not the best option as they will most likely crop up elsewhere.

“Depression is a very real phenomena today and this kind of content only adds fuel to the fire and pollutes innocent minds,” Duggal said. “It is important for law enforcement agencies not to be bound by the exact words in the law and interpret it to its most practical use. For instance, Section 67 of the IT Act is meant for ‘obscenity’ but can be used for this kind of content as it is more dangerous and potent and must be countered effectively.”

Section 67 of the IT Act states that whoever publishes or transmits material in the electronic form that tends to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it shall be punished.

While experts agree that striking down these sites will not make much of a difference, none deny the irreparable damage that they can cause.

NOTE: Image used for representational purposes.

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