Printed on: January 17, 1995
David English’s call for help went ’round the world before Christmas.
Sitting at his computer keyboard at work in Santa Clara, Calif., English, 40, was in tears and considering suicide: ”It doesn’t really matter any more,” began the E-mail message he sent into cyberspace.
The response was immediate: ”Please – any crisis people available in the Bay Area, California,” a woman in New York state implored participants in an online support group for depression sufferers, where English had posted his message. ”This man is desperate and out of control. . . . Somebody help me do something, please!”
People began firing supportive messages to English, hundreds of them, from as far away as Japan. After tracing the source of his unsigned message, someone called English’s co-workers, who rushed to his side. Someone else called the police.
English’s experience is hardly unique. In a twist not likely imagined by the engineers and scientists who built it, the Internet, a global web of millions of interconnected computers, has become a net of another sort – a safety net of support groups and crisis intervention for thousands of people in search of solace and relief from emotional and physical pain.
”It’s very valuable,” said psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg of New York City. ”At times, it’s actually lifesaving, as people have posted extremely serious messages concerning their suicidal plans. It’s mobilized people into all kinds of interventions.”
”What you really do have is a virtual community, and people in fact take care of each other, just as they would in any other kind of community,” Goldberg said.
English found that out quickly. ”I was so close there (to suicide), it was amazing,” he said in an interview last week. A single father with custody of three children, his wages garnished for payment of old medical debts, and on probation at work for taking too much time off to care for his children, English said he had already decided to take his life when he logged on to the Internet on Dec. 19 and ”vented” in a rambling note.
”I didn’t think anybody would really see it, or that it (would) matter if they did,” he recalled.
As he discovered, it did.
”Something snapped, and I just realized that there were a lot of people there that cared,” English said.
”There is something powerful about a medium where you can cry out for understanding and get some back,” said Doug Davis, a professor of psychology at Haverford College who writes a weekly online column about what draws people to cyberspace culture.
Although still no replacement for traditional therapy or counseling, the Internet is nevertheless emerging as an important part of the lives of many people who have found themselves in the grips of any of a host of physical or emotional maladies such as depression, alcoholism or cancer, according to John M. Grohol, 26, an online mental-health advocate.
The Internet, Grohol said, is for those ”looking for a place to be able to vent some of their feelings and reactions,” but who either don’t have the resources to do so in their families or communities, or are unwilling to reach out in traditional ways.
Grohol has assisted in the creation of at least a dozen of about 100 Internet newsgroups dedicated to self-help, support and recovery.
Now a doctoral student in psychology, Grohol, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said he took up the cause of mental health online two years ago, after his best friend killed himself without warning.
”I wanted to help others like myself who had suffered similar trauma, or were on the other side of the problem, suffering depression and feeling like suicide. I felt that this was one of the best ways I could reach out and help as many others as possible.”
Several participants agreed that legitimate suicide threats were not uncommon on the Internet. ”If you watch it for two weeks, you will see a scary one,” said Bev Thornton, 37, a military veteran in New Brunswick, Canada, who said he spent about two hours a day on his computer, messaging participants in online support groups for depression and arthritis, two afflictions that he suffers.
In the case of the California man, Thornton said, ”I watched it happen. The guy was going to do it. It was scary.”
There is almost a formula to the response, he said. ”Someone will put on a really scary message, right? Then what you do, you reply to it . . . and see if they write back to you. Two or three people will start doing that. Within an hour, you’ve got this team thing set up. You keep them in front of their keyboard, keep them typing, just talk them down, basically.”
In October, a Virginia man notified authorities after reading what he interpreted as a suicide note posted on an electronic bulletin board from an Indiana man. Police were able to rescue the note’s author, whom they found in his garage, breathing exhaust fumes from a pickup truck.
Most of the messages are far more mundane – discussions of parenting, new medical treatments, words of encouragement, expressions of loneliness, even poetry.
Bruce, a 36-year-old Northern California man who said he was on probation for molesting his daughter and asked that his last name not be printed, said he stumbled into an Internet support group two years ago, about the time his offense was reported to authorities.
In an interview, he called the online resource only an ”adjunct” to the intensive court-ordered therapy that he was undergoing. ”It’s a place where if I’m feeling really, really bad, I can toss something out there, and within a very short time, get some feedback,” he said.
Grohol predicts a coming debate over the involvement of mental-health professionals online. Although there are reports of the occasional effort at online therapy, the prevailing attitude toward professional involvement has been hands-off, he said.
Grohol, an editor and contributor to an online psychology journal, said he had begun advocating a more active role, especially in crisis counseling. ”I suggest that clinicians really should take a proactive role in the virtual community, they should reach out and help . . . just as a doctor in a restaurant would stop having his dinner and help someone who’s having a heart attack.”
”It certainly would be beneficial to everybody. That’s a controversial stance, though.”
Goldberg, the psychiatrist, said he had been giving ”factual information” within the Internet depression support group for the last six months – a strictly ”educational function.”
”I don’t give advice,” he said. ”I think there are all kinds of interesting problems.” For example, he said, states license physicians, but is the license valid ”if somebody in New York is going to treat somebody in California over the Internet? I don’t doubt that all of those kinds of things are going to be issues.”
Psychological support and online therapy may represent the next wave in pop psychology, said A’isha Ajayi, who lectures on the sociological and psychological implications of the Internet at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Results of using ”the computer as an agent of socialization” could be positive and negative, she said. ”Any time people open up and talk to each other, the potential for good is there.”
However, she said, the same degree of anonymity that allowed people to open up could also make them vulnerable to ”some pretty sick individuals.”
The Internet has grown busy with people posting false names, anonymous E- mail addresses and bogus or cruel messages to the unwary.
”There are a lot of strange people who spend an awful lot of time on the Net,” said Janette Benson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver. ”They may kind of jerk someone’s chain by leading them along, or by saying some pretty outrageous things.”
Still, Benson is an Internet booster. She noted an incident at the University of Denver last winter in which a call to campus security from Virginia saved a suicidal student who had talked via modem.
”Before, nobody could reach me,” David English said. ”But with the power of the computer, anybody in the world can get to you. There’s a lot of people out there just like me, in the same situation.”
GRAPHICS: PHOTO (1)
1. John M. Grohol, a doctoral student in psychology, has helped create *Internet*”newsgroups” aimed at self-help, support and recovery. (Impact Visuals / CINDY REIMAN)
Copyright Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. 1995. Reprinted here with permission.