© 2020- FIXTHE26 - All rights reserved
Suicide Prevention Town Hall: Parents say website coached kids to take their own lives
SAN ANTONIO – Parents whose children were already struggling with depression believe one website pushed them over the edge and actually coached them to take their own lives.
The Trouble Shooters are taking you inside the battle to get the website shut down. We don’t take sharing this story lightly, but parents do need to know what their children have access to online.
While official numbers aren’t out yet, local counselors tell us suicides in Bexar County climbed last year as the pandemic triggered so many mental health challenges.
Counselors say the stress we’re all feeling has been especially hard on our kids whose social lives have been almost completely replaced by the internet.
“Mikael was a gentle soul,” grieving mother Ruth Scott says.
In his last photo ever taken, Mikael Scott is looking ahead pensively. He battled depression for years. Around Christmas, his mother says his mood took a turn.
“He stopped talking as much,” Ruth remembers. “He would cry a little bit more. I noticed he was always on his phone – and he did not have social media – so it was like he was always checking in or something.”
She’s a nurse from Schertz. She had just worked a long overnight shift when she got home, checked on Mikael and made the worst discovery a mother could ever make. Mikael, just 27, had taken his own life.
“My only son just died,” Ruth says while sobbing. “He was my life. I lived and died by that child.”
The next few hours were a blur: paramedics, police and a pursuit for answers.
“I see that bottle right there,” Ruth says while pointing to a large white bottle.
The mysterious bottle by the bed took Ruth on a dark journey to a dark corner of the web.
“I did not know that websites existed out there that promote – desperate people, even children – they promote it and they glorify killing yourself,” Ruth says through tears.
Her son was a member of Sanctioned Suicide. We’re naming it so parents know what to look for on their children’s devices.
The website describes itself as a “pro-choice” forum to talk about mental illness and suicide where you can “ask questions you can’t ask anywhere else.”
Since the Trouble Shooters started looking into the site, it’s hopscotched around the web – but still available, if you know where to look. A welcome note says: “Pro-choice means that we do not encourage you to do anything.
The site’s administrators did not return our request for an interview or statement.
While there are recovery threads like one saying the site saved someone’s life, the post from people contemplating suicide are chilling.
We found one called, “Best way to hang yourself?” A commenter gave advice, then wrote: “That is how you succeed.”
A popular topic is SN, or sodium nitrite. It’s a preservative for deli meat, turned suicide cocktail.
And it’s what was inside the bottle Ruth found by Mikael’s bed.
“Minute by minute, his symptoms as he was dying,” Ruth reads from a sodium nitrite thread.
She holds the website directly responsible for Mikael’s death.
“That was the gun and sodium nitrite was the bullets,” Ruth says.
Kelli Wilson from Houston found the website open on her 18-year-old son’s phone.
“After he had taken his own life,” Wilson remembers. “People are dying on this every single day. The question that I have is, why aren’t they removing it?”
She now leads a coalition of families across the world impacted by the website who all want it shut down.
That’s easier said than done, because of a law called Section 230.
“I think Section 230 is, in some ways, more powerful than the First Amendment,” Wilson says.
It was written in 1996 when the internet was in its infancy. It means websites don’t have to meet the same standards as traditional publishers like newspaper or television.
“The theory was, the internet was going to serve as like a bulletin board where people could post things. You don’t have the right to sue somebody who creates the bulletin board for the things that other people post that are offensive,” explains Professor Bill Piatt from St. Mary’s University School of Law.
The once-obscure law is now a political flashpoint. Former President Donald Trump wanted Section 230 repealed when websites like Twitter posted editorial warnings about, or removed, his content instead of leaving the messages unfiltered.
“So there is concern that if, well look if they are exercising some editorial control taking things down, why can’t they be held liable as if they were an editor?” Prof. Piatt says.
The 26 words of Section 230 are considered the 26 words that created the internet. That’s why Wilson is calling her movement Fix The 26, to hold websites like Sanctioned Suicide accountable in court.
“Because it’s virtual, I feel like somehow crime has become legal,” Wilson says.
While both sides of the aisle find the law problematic, there’s not much appetite in Congress to rewrite it.
“I can tell you that I’ve spoken with many Senators about this and I get a lot of interest at first. I’ve had very long and lengthy conversations with them. And really nothing happens,” Wilson says.
Back in Schertz, Ruth is still raw with grief. She sees names on the website crossed out: a signal sent out in cyberspace the deed was done. Someone else is now dead.
“Unless the laws are changed, this is going to keep going,” Ruth says. “There has to be a line, okay? There has to be a line that you don’t cross. I do not want anybody else to lose their child to this nonsense.”
If you’re struggling, please know help is just a phone call away. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline’s number is 1-800-273-8255 and it’s available anytime you need to talk.
On Wednesday, February 24, News 4 Trouble Shooter Emily Baucum will be hosting a Facebook Live with people right here in San Antonio who will show you how to get help, even in this time of social distancing. You can join the conversation at 2 p.m. on our News 4 San Antonio Facebook page.
By EMILY BAUCUM