The deaths of the two Melbourne teenagers who met on MySpace signify a worrying trend in the growth of Internet mediated group suicide and self harm. It signifies the dark side of Internet communications, where vulnerable and unstable members of society are socialised into virtual communities whose shared vocabulary and values become an antidote to loneliness.
The girls in this case called themselves “emos”, which stand for emotional, and glorified a state of brooding melancholy. They knew each other well and were in what in mental health terms is called a “folie à deux”, a paired delusional state where their relationship is enmeshed and isolated from the rest of society.
In my own experience, while working in a mental health unit for children and adolescents, I found that the consciousness of the patients was a kind of group dynamic that was played out online. In this setting there were occasions where self harm and even suicide attempts were a copycat, domino phenomenon. While it usually occurred among people who knew each other, self harm pacts could also occur among complete strangers. “MSN madness” was what one child called it.
Increasingly on the Internet the unprecedented phenomenon of strangers meeting to commit suicide is occurring: the web providing a forum to normalise their psychopathology. This socialisation is also occurring in other groups propelling themselves towards heinous acts like terrorism and pedophilia.
In Japan there were 180 deaths due to Internet group suicides between 2003 and 2005. While this may have been related to its unique culture, a 2006 study into adolescent self harm in Britain found one in five girls between 14 and 19 had self harmed and close to one third of all adolescents, boys and girls, had considered it. This was estimated to be a 100 per cent increase from a decade ago. Almost a third of them reported Internet chat rooms playing a role in their thoughts.
Group suicides are something of a challenge to modern psychiatry, a field which grew very much from Western ideas of individualism. In this worldview suicide is a deeply individual act that lacks all rationality. It is generally seen as the needless act of desperate souls, or of the terminally ill. Hence, it has been categorised as illness and medicalised.
But in cultures like Japan and the Middle East it can be the furthest thing from a sickness. It is perceived as a rational act that can be undertaken by perfectly sane individuals as well as by groups. This is both clear and baffling in the phenomenon of suicide terrorism, where the actors are often held aloft by their communities as heroes.
What these cultures have in common is a deep aversion to shame and an undercurrent of sympathy to martyrs. Those who embrace death can overturn shame and dishonour, becoming heroes through actions that would shock Western individualists. It is no coincidence that a Japanese branch of the Red Army taught Palestinians the art of airplane hijacking in the 1970s, killing 26 tourists in an Israeli airport in 1972.
In his classic study Suicide, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim drew a sharp distinction between suicide in Western Europe and what he saw as the “altruistic” forms of suicide prevalent in Japan or the Middle East. Durkheim is also famous for coining the term “anomie”, translated literally as “without name”, but referring to the sense of disconnectedness that may lead a person to thoughts of suicide.
The teenage girls’ deaths do not fall in the category of honour and shame. While the reasons for self-harm or suicide in adolescents may vary, this sense of disconnectedness is the most universal. But just like the worldwide growth in group suicides, it is the Internet that is giving their psychopathology momentum and normalising what are dangerous ideas. For the two girls, it appears this sense of isolation from the world at large was heightened by their closeness through interactions online.
Suicide in our society remains an act for the hopeless. It is a tragedy that children with their entire lives ahead of them cannot see a way out. The Internet in such cases is providing a sense of strength to the weak and vulnerable, at times normalising what is mental illness. The web is giving them a connectedness in death and destruction that they could never find in normal life.
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Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.