Despite the programme being a carefully researched and nuanced exploration of the issues, let me just note that it is sold on a stupid premise, namely “Is the internet encouraging vulnerable people to kill themselves?”
People in passing cars have apparently been known to shout “jump!” to suicidal people on the Golden Gate Bridge but you would never see an article entitled “Is the transport system encouraging vulnerable people to kill themselves?”
Sadly, people’s anxieties about new technology means you can get away with such meaningless generalisation when talking about how people interact online.
Needless to say, I was expecting 30 minutes of badly-researched shock-horror radio but instead found a carefully constructed documentary that takes a comprehensive look at whether suicide chat rooms and online groups that provide self-harm instructions actually increase the risk of ending it all.
The documentary talks to families who have lost loved ones after they participated in online groups, police who have investigated such deaths and a suicide chat-room administrator.
It also covers the case of William Melchert-Dinkel who is accused of encouraging people to take their own lives by pretending to agree to online suicide pacts, and discusses recent studies on how participation in such groups affects suicidal thinking (with preliminary research suggesting a reduction).
The knee-jerk response to such groups is usually for government organisations to suggest they should be ‘banned’ (apparently unaware that this is neither possible nor effective) although the documentary covers some more interesting suggestions – including outreach workers who offer support when an at-risk individual seems to be seeking methods to self-harm.
The one line premise is the only bad thing about this documentary and it’s possibly one of the best discussions you’ll hear about the internet and mental health for a long time. It doesn’t look for, or rely on, easy answers and manages some insightful coverage of a delicate issue.