Don’t Say A Word: By Their Silence Are Psychiatrists, Police and the Newspapers Responsible for Helping to Create the Suicide Chat Rooms Frequented by Predators like Melchert-Dinkel?
Psychiatrists, police and editors cite the contagion effect as the principal reason to not report suicides. The theory is that extensive coverage of one suicide triggers other suicides, spreading like a virus. After Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel about a man who shoots himself over a doomed love affair, came out in 1774, there was a reported increase in young men shooting themselves. That’s why some people refer to the contagion, or copycat, effect as the Werther Effect.
from Suicide Notes by Liam Casey, Ryerson Review of Journalism December 22nd, 2010
As both an author and a radio host I always try to give every topic I cover in both electronic print as well as over the virtual airwaves the respect it is due through thorough research and a balanced and objective approach to the many sides of what are often controversial stories.
My reasoning is that even though I cannot truly experience the first hand emotions and perspectives of my guests who are the ones that have actually lived the story, I can at least provide a unique lens through which my audience can view and hopefully come to understand the circumstances of a given situation in the context of their own lives. This contextual reference point I believe is essential to establishing a common ground that leads to greater insight and where possible answers.
Of course, and as is often the case, definitive answers are elusive. The circumstances surrounding the pending trial of William Melchert-Dinkel, the Serial Suicide Killer as I have come to call him, is one such example in that it represents the convergence of many contradictory elements including the differences between what is considered a criminal act in the physical world versus one that is “vectored” as my most recent guest Susan Brenner so eloquently put it “through cyber space.” (Note: the segment titled “Cybercrime, Insanity Pleas and the Right to Die: A Guest Panel Discussion” in which Professor Brenner was a guest panelist, also included TV’s Cop Doc Dr. Richard Weinblatt.)
Looking beyond the crime committed in the physical and virtual worlds debate, the uneven interpretation of laws pertaining to one’s right to die and assisted suicide alone seems to provide Melchert-Dinkel’s defense attorney with what many believe will be a solid foundation for appealing a conviction should that be the outcome of the trial – which by the way is scheduled to start in February or March of the new year. In fact, and as intimated by Dr. Weinblatt during our December 15th segment, trials of this nature are often driven by public sentiments versus tangible legal principles and therefore the likelihood of an appeal and an eventual overturning of a guilty verdict is a distinct possibility.
It is hard to argue with The Cop Doc’s point of view, when you consider the fact that if Melchert-Dinkel had been a resident of Oregon when he sought to satiate his “thrill of the chase” desires through encouraging what he viewed as vulnerable prey to commit suicide, he would not have been charged, as assisted suicide is not illegal in that state. It is both an interesting and ironic full-circle legal conundrum that physical geography could have and still might influence a trial’s outcome regarding actions committed in a non-physical realm.
However thought-provoking the legal aspects of this complex case might be, in the end I still believe that this story comes down to fellow human beings who for whatever reason are experiencing real emotional turmoil and are thus vulnerable to predators like Melchert-Dinkel. What is even more disconcerting is how the obfuscated chat rooms of predatory pursuit in which even a minor such as the one Melchert-Dinkel talked into repeatedly cutting herself while he watched via webcam, could exist and flourish in the first place.
It is in this vein that Liam Casey’s December 22nd, 2010 article in the Ryerson Review of Journalism delivers the greatest impact. Especially given the writer’s account of his own personal battle with depression and the temptation to end it all, as well as his expressed dismay with the authorities, including the media and mental health professions reluctance to report and discuss the subject of suicide in the open and scrutinizing light of a legitimate public forum.
Casey’s revelations are both timely and uniquely discerning as he is someone who has walked in the proverbial shoes of the Mark Drybroughs and Nadia Kajoujis, providing us with a two-way lens on a subject that the majority of us will hopefully and prayerfully never know on such an intimate and first-hand basis.
As a result, his observations that “Suicide avoidance is a throwback to journalism’s dark days, a time when editors and news producers could choose to ignore unpleasant matters,” is noteworthy, as is his contention that “the industry can no longer justify failing to cover a tragedy that will affect so many people, in one way or another, at some time in their lives.” The statistics he cites in support of his latter statement is startling as I would count myself amongst the 83 percent of Canadians who responded to an August 2010 Harris-Decima poll who were unaware that “suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in Canada and the second leading cause of death for people 15 to 24.” In short, this is not a problem that is going to go away by itself and as a result it needs to be responsibly and sensitively discussed out in the open.
Unfortunately, and as Casey reveals in his article, “psychiatrists, police and editors cite the contagion effect as the principal reason to not report suicides,” and therefore inadvertently push the issue to the darker recesses of shame and ultimately the sub-culture world of Internet suicide chat rooms where death is an honorable solution romanticized in songs like Blue Oyster Cults “Don’t Fear The Reaper.”
Valentine is done
Here but now they’re gone
Romeo and Juliet
Are together in eternity…Romeo and Juliet
40,000 men and women everyday…Like Romeo and Juliet
40,000 men and women everyday…Redefine happiness
Another 40,000 coming everyday…We can be like they are
Come on baby…don’t fear the reaper
Baby take my hand…don’t fear the reaper
We’ll be able to fly…don’t fear the reaper
Baby I’m your man…
While it should be noted that Donald Roeser, who both wrote and did the lead vocals for the song stated that he “was actually kind of appalled when I first realized that some people were seeing it as an advertisement for suicide or something that was not my intention at all,” this alluring tune still resonates with many (long after its original release in 1976), having sold approximately 922,000 digital copies to date.
While I do not want to turn this post into a discussion about artistic freedom, the point I am making is simply this . . . in the absence of societal involvement and intervention by what means are those who are most vulnerable in society engaged and by what agendas are they being influenced?
Melchert-Dinkel’s reference in an e-mail to the fact that there are others like him, and that they have found a way to commit “legal murder,” should send a collectively chilling wake up call to all of us that by continuing to avoid meaningful discussion regarding suicide, we are to a certain extent creating the dark alleyways of abandonment where more people will unnecessarily lose their lives.
As the public health reporter with The Globe and Mail André Picard, to whom Casey referred in his article, expressed his belief that by “talking more openly about mental illness we can prevent suicides,” the words of 19 year old Suzy Gonzales, who took her life by drinking a cyanide cocktail, takes on an even stronger resonance. Specifically, how “chat rooms are alluringly effective at muting the consequences” of taking such a drastic course of action as reflected in the following excerpt from my November 30th post Is Suicide really Painless On The Internet:
“When online, I am calm and collected,” Gonzales wrote 10 days before her death but, “give me a couple of seconds of talking about (suicide) in person and it’s the same as with the suicide hotline.” “I get shaky and start crying. And then I just feel silly — Basically, I just need a friend who will understand me.”
Whether the Gonzales story is a reflection of our society’s discomfort with or indifference towards the subject of suicide, or a testimony to the despicable natures of the darker elements in our world, and the havoc they can wreak if left unchecked and unchallenged, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we take our collective heads out of the sand and realize that with the advent of the Internet, there is no safe place in the realms of the physical world because of its pervasive and at time insidious silent entry into our homes and the bedrooms of our children. You only have to think of the young girl who at Melchert-Dinkel’s prompting repeatedly cut herself to realize the extent and powerful reach of these new age predators.
The only question that needs to be answered is simply this . . . what are we prepared to do about it now?
Use the following link to access our complete and exclusive coverage of the William Melchert-Dinkel (Serial Suicide Killer) Case.