On Dec. 30, Katelyn Nicole Davis turned on the livestreaming app Live.me at her home in Cedartown, Georgia, and broadcast her own suicide.
As that video spread across the internet and social media, it demonstrated how quickly technology can turn casual spectators into traumatized witnesses. The video also left those who encountered it online or through news reports wondering what would drive a young person — Davis was just 12 — to invite unsuspecting friends and strangers to watch a life vanish before their eyes.
While Davis’ death is an extreme, rare example of using social media to document ending one’s life, she isn’t alone in sharing a fatal suicide attempt. Last May, a French teenager used the smartphone app Periscope to stream her suicide.
“People who are doing this are asking for help. Some part of them that is hoping for that.”
Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist and consultant for Crisis Text Line, said that while the medium may have been shocking in Davis’ case, it’s common for someone in the midst of a mental health crisis to yearn for connection. Young people who’ve grown up communicating often exclusively through a smartphone may naturally turn to social media to talk about suicidal feelings. What’s less instinctive, however, is knowing where to find life-saving aid and comfort online.
“People who are doing this are asking for help,” Michaelis said. “Some part of them is hoping for that.”
Davis appears to have broadcast other videos. She talks playfully to the camera about singing and comedy. She confides about her family life, including allegations that an adult she knew tried to sexually assault her.
In one appearance she cries despairingly, saying she can’t go on. It’s unclear whether anyone who watched those streams reached out to Davis or tried to connect her with suicide prevention resources.
Michaelis said that adolescents and teens dealing with intense psychological distress face unique challenges. The brain isn’t fully developed until early adulthood, which limits judgment and long-term planning skills. That may help explain why someone in Davis’ position would make the drastic decision to broadcast her suicide attempt.
Severe mental illness also alters one’s sense of time: feelings of desperation combined with the perception that time is somehow running out can lead to an overwhelming urgency to act immediately.
You know how your crush will ignore your texts but then “like” six of your Tweets? Yeah, we’re not like that. Text 741741 for crisis support pic.twitter.com/nzLVPxro5B
— Crisis Text Line (@CrisisTextLine) December 23, 2016
David D. Luxton, chief science officer of the suicide prevention nonprofit Now Matters Now, said broadcasting a suicide attempt could be likened to a kind of suicide note — a final, visceral message to the world.
But livestreaming is not a one-way form of communication; viewers can comment in real-time with replies that everyone can see. In Davis’ case, at least one person encouraged her suicide attempt, according to YouTube comments that accompany her videos. That is a haunting reminder that some people are entertained by turning social media’s power to build community into a weapon of shame and cruelty.
Encountering a stranger who cheers your death in a vulnerable moment would unnerve any adult and probably devastate a 12-year-old who has little experience navigating complex emotions. What Davis may not have known is that there are safe online and digital spaces to talk about suicidal feelings.
Can’t sleep? Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you need someone to talk to. We’re here for you.
— The Lifeline (@800273TALK) December 19, 2016
That includes Crisis Text Line, an anonymous texting service with trained counselors, as well as online chat services available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Hopeline Network. Both Facebook and Snapchat allow users to connect to the Crisis Text Line through their platforms, and Facebook users across the U.S. will soon be able to talk to counselors through the Messenger app.
Such resources lack the kind of wide audience young people may crave interacting with, but they do provide a digital outlet for those who may not feel comfortable talking about their feelings in person or on the phone.
“[I]t cuts down on the difficulty because you don’t have to look another person in the eye and say I’m hurting.”
“The idea of the digital medium — it cuts down on the difficulty because you don’t have to look another person in the eye and say, ‘I’m hurting,’” Michaelis said. Text and chat services with trained staff can keep that distance but also connect people with short-term and long-term recovery and therapy options.
Friends and strangers who see suicidal behavior online can help in simple ways. Luxton’s research, among other studies, has shown that brief, caring messages are effective at reducing suicide rates.
“There are times when a person feels suicidal and all they wish for is for someone to reach out and provide some kind of care and concern,” Luxton said.
In addition, Facebook makes it possible to report suicidal content, which is reviewed by staff members who can reach out to the affected user with resources. In cases where self-harm is an imminent risk, calling the police is also an option, though it’s important to remember that some people may feel less safe with police intervention.
Ultimately, friends and strangers witnessing suicidal feelings and behavior online should find some way to offer help or communicate how much they care, said Michaelis. We may never fully understand why Davis streamed her suicide, but it’s possible she wanted someone to stop her.
“The reality is that all of us, every single human being, whether you are suffering from mental illness or not, want to feel connected to one another,” Michaelis said. “We all want to feel our lives have meaning.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.