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Disturbing website encourages vulnerable users to die by suicide. What's being done about it?

A young adult using a laptop. (Getty Images)
A young adult using a laptop. (Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following story deals with suicide. If you have suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889).

For suicide prevention resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click here.

There’s an alarming phenomenon occurring online and in real life: Suicide enablers who encourage others to die — often when they are most vulnerable.

Last month, The New York Times delved deeply into one specific website which provides methods, encouragement and even pressure to die. Investigative journalist Megan Twohey co-reported the story, which serves as a cautionary tale for those who find these sites while they’re looking for support — and for families of young people who don’t realize their loved ones may have landed in some of the darkest places on the internet.

In “Where the Despairing Log On, and Learn Ways to Die,” Twohey confirmed 45 deaths by participants, some of them just young teenagers, who frequented the website, which launched in March of 2018. She says it attracts tens of thousands of members from around the globe and gets about 6 million monthly views.

Nearly half of the site’s members are under 25 years old, she says, and users often identify as struggling with depression, bipolar and other forms of mental illness.

The site boasts detailed methods on how to die by suicide — making the forum “uniquely dangerous” and “tips it into potential criminal activity” territory, Twohey says.

Members gather information through the site’s live chats and public blog posts, where fellow members openly nudge each other along in their suicidal plans. “Goodbye threads,” among the most popular draws on the site, are posts where members document their suicide in real time and other users react with emojis or comment with words of encouragement.

“When we talk to suicide experts, they said that for most people, suicidal thoughts are temporary. They’ll get through them,” Twohey says. “But if people learn effective methods and if they become convinced that it’s the right thing to do, they’re more likely to follow through — and we saw that.”

The reporter identified a 17 year old in Texas who discovered the site last January during the pandemic. In less than a month, she says he followed through with the methods he found on the site and narrated his suicide attempt on a goodbye thread.

Twohey also pinpointed a 16 year old from Salt Lake City, Utah, who she says suffered from depression at age 13 but got help through medication and treatment. After a while, doctors agreed he was doing so well that he no longer needed treatment.

By the time he turned 16, the straight-A student who seemed to be doing well grew anxious over an undiagnosed stomach problem, she says. During that time, he found the website.

“Once he got pulled into the site, it was only a matter of months before he learned a method of suicide and essentially lived blogged his death with these other members weighing in with messages of support,” she says. “His parents had no idea that he was on this website until it was too late.”

There are some users on the site who prompt conversations about prevention resources and reasons to keep fighting. But those get outweighed by the onslaught of posts promoting reasons to die. The site was “purposefully designed” to support the latter, she says.

The two people who created the website are known by their online names Marquis and Serge. They both have gone great lengths to conceal their identity and wipe any traces of themselves off the internet, she says. They made it clear on the site that anyone only coming to look for suicide prevention resources is not welcome, she says.

Twohey and her co-reporter tracked down Marquis, who they identified as Lamarcus Small of Huntsville, Alabama, and Serge, who is Diego Joaquín Galante of Montevideo, Uruguay.

The men were contacted before the Times story was published and both denied having anything to do with the website, she says. Galante circled back and said while he was a member of the site, he denied ownership.

“By that point, we had extensive evidence showing that they were, in fact, the people who had founded and operated this website,” she says, “and since the story was published, they have essentially resigned from the website.”

Families around the world, outraged at the existence of the online forum, began bringing it to the attention of authorities. Officials in Germany and Australia have succeeded in restricting site access, she says, but when families in the U.S. begged Congress, law enforcement and tech companies to look into criminal activity on the site, no action was taken.

In Australia, search engine companies brushed off concerned families and even authorities, with the tech companies arguing they are simply the messengers of the information, she says.

Since the Times published their investigation in December, the new website administrator disabled public visibility of the post containing methods of suicide. Now, a user must be a member in order to see that information, she says.

The article spurred congressional action, she says. Members of Congress have contacted tech companies like Google to ask for an explanation of the site’s accessibility on their search engines and have also pushed the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the site’s two founders, Galante and Small, she says.

Uruguay’s law enforcement has also launched a criminal investigation into Galante, she notes.

Twohey and the Times team say they felt it was imperative to tell this story as the country confronts an unprecedented suicide crisis — specifically among young people. She says she and fellow reporters considered it an ethical obligation to report on the staggering number of site members were dying every week, the site’s explicit directions for suicide, and why the site continues to operate.

Digging deeper into the website also allowed the reporting team to explore the larger implications of vulnerable minors on the internet, restrictions, and who’s held accountable for harm.

“The hope was that this was going to bring about more accountability than anything else,” she says.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.