At the close of 2016, 12-year-old Katelyn Nicole Davis decided that she had had enough of her life in a small, rural town in Georgia. So she did what most teens do nowadays — she took to social media to share her feelings of angst, depression, and hopelessness. She was, by all accounts, a person doing the best she could in coping with depression and an alleged abuser within her own home.
What she did, however, is becoming an increasingly common and disturbing consequence of our society virtually ignoring people who are troubled by suicide and suicidal thoughts. She decided to livestream her death on Facebook Live.
This is upsetting to people: “How could they allow such videos to be online?!” “Why don’t Facebook and YouTube do something about this?!” But the outrage misses the point completely.
Everything Live, All the Time
In a society that values perception over depth, reality TV show stars over seasoned politicians, and generally anything entertaining over something that requires nuance and thought, it’s no surprise that people will do anything — and everything — if given the right tools to do so. Video apps for livestreaming are just the thing, providing everyone with the ability to share whatever’s happening in their life in real-time, on video, to whomever wants to watch.
People around the world are outraged that this video still is available to be viewed online. Attempts to erase it from the collective memory of the Internet have been in vain. And it’s no wonder — death, gore, violence, sexual assault, and accidents all pique humanity’s collective curiosity and morbid interest. It reminds us that everything you post online will take on an uncontrollable life of its own if it becomes popular — and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Whether Facebook Live is streaming a rape or the beating of a man with mental disabilities, in the future Facebook, YouTube and others are going to be known as much for their graphic, uncensored, disturbing videos as for being a social network.
Facebook and YouTube could remove such videos (and sometimes do), but copies soon replace them on those same services (or elsewhere online), since people simply upload a copy they’ve saved to their computer. It becomes an endless and Sisphyean effort, as community sites like reddit ensure that a copy of the video will exist somewhere online, for all time.
The Problem Isn’t Video, It’s Suicide
All that outrage is completely misdirected, however. Outrage shouldn’t fall on the fact that our technology and tools allow such videos to be produced and distributed so easily — all you need is a mobile phone purchased at your local Walmart. You can’t stop the inevitable progress of technology, nor regulate how people will use it. The Internet just works around such attempts at regulation and provides other avenues for people. ((You can certainly try to regulate parts of the Internet, as they’ve done with online gambling in the U.S., but that hasn’t stopped a single citizen from not being able to engage in online gambling if he or she wants to.))
The problem is suicide.
The problem is a society that has so few social resources available to its poor and those most in emotional need that a 12 year old feels her only choice is to end her own life.
The problem is when we ignore or foist the issue of suicide not onto a concerted, focused effort of providing much-needed professional resources — like when a trauma team is dispatched by a hospital — but onto a patchwork of volunteers and volunteer-driven organizations to help fill in the holes for those most in need. Suicide is not something you can go talk to your primary care physician about. Go ahead and try, and see how quickly that conversation gets shut down or (mis)directed to calling a crisis hotline, or being on your own to try and find a mental health professional with an opening.
We don’t have state-of-the-art interventions for people contemplating suicide. Instead we mostly rely on the same efforts and technologies — like the telephone! — that we’ve relegated suicidal people to for decades. Oh, yes, there have been the newer “listening services” and anonymous help apps, and there is the Crisis Text Line and Crisis Chat. But while billions of dollars are spent annually on questionable healthcare technologies (such as full body scans or electronic medical records that do little to improve care), there has been virtually no change in funding or focus in helping to significantly reduce the rate of suicide in America. ((Annually in the U.S., there is a total of approximately $66 million devoted specifically to suicide prevention services to try and help to prevent more than 40,000+ deaths — the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. That comes out to about $1,650 per person, but little of it actually results in direct treatment for people who are feeling suicidal. Instead, the vast majority of it goes into crisis hotlines and related services.))
The problem isn’t that you can now view people who engage in suicidal behavior online. No, the problem is that these people are making us face the very real reality most of us never see firsthand. That is, if you’re a person who has suicidal thoughts, you are often ostracized. Friends may try to reach out, but they often don’t know how, or the person pushes them further away.
Suicide is a very lonely road. The suicidal traveler feels hopeless, afraid, and most of all, completely and utterly alone.
Suicide & The Way Forward
Crisis services are a good step. But what should’ve been the first step in helping to create a comprehensive trauma service to serve those most in emotional need stopped with those crisis services. Instead of providing an emotional safety net to those most it need, we throw people a thin lifeline staffed with trained volunteers.
Such lifelines are admirable, but they aren’t enough. And they will never be enough on their own to help stop the onslaught of more than one-hundred friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, fellow students, and loved ones from ending their life every single day of the year.
So let’s stop being outraged that such videos exist. Instead, let’s pool our outrage and focus on the lack of accessible services to individuals who suffer from depression and other mental illness who sincerely believe that ending their own life is the best available option. What services help those who live in more rural locations in the U.S.? What services are available if you’re poor? ((Medicaid is available to the poor, but it is very difficult to access services through Medicaid, because most providers won’t take it (it pays too poorly). And if you’re a teenager, the options are so much more limited.))
Twelve-year-old Katelyn Nicole Davis needed to be heard. And since nobody would listen to her in life, perhaps we’ll listen more carefully to her in death.