But memes about suicide remain largely uncharted territory. While disturbing, they’re far less graphic than actual depictions. And they’re often darkly funny. As the gatekeepers of social media are wrestling with how to police this trend, some suicide-prevention experts see a window of opportunity. Typically, suicide memers aren’t mocking suicidal thoughts; they’re commiserating and bonding over being suicidal. Morbid memes, these experts believe, may be a foot in the door to one of the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations: socially isolated young people.
April Foreman is a seasoned veteran of the dark web. As a licensed psychologist and executive board member at the American Association of Suicidology, she’s clicked through the foulest content on the internet to keep tabs on the volatile and high-risk souls that live there.
Foreman wasn’t surprised when suicide memes began to percolate up into the surface-level internet after a long incubation period in more hostile and conspiracy-laden depths (see: 4chan). In a way, she’s heartened by the memes’ increased social acceptability. Like so many anonymous platforms, 9gag struggles with pervasive racism, misogyny, and old-fashioned trolling. But while the predictable “lol, do it” replies pepper the comment sections to suicide memes, messages of support tend to be buoyed to the top by hundreds of upvotes. Internet scamps with usernames like necrolovertown gently direct suicide-meme posters to local suicide hotlines (or, in necrolovertown’s case, provide his Facebook contact info and a standing offer to chat—“any hour anytime I’ll be there”).
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What we’re witnessing on 9gag, Foreman explains, is the writing of a new “social script.” Sometimes it’s tough to know what to say, “like if someone’s dog dies, or if you have to go to a funeral.” But through experience, communities develop a formula for how to respond supportively—something like, “‘Dude, that’s rough. I’ve gone through it. Here are the resources, let me know if you need support,’” Foreman says. Foreman has identified several corners of the internet that seem to have healthy social scripts for suicidal thoughts. “Reddit communities around certain video games”—like the Eve Online universe’s Broadcast 4 Reps—“tend to have communities where you talk about your mental health and you feel better. People help you.”
Still, Foreman cautions, destructive conversations about suicide abound deeper in the bowels of the internet. “We have people that go in there as trolls to really stir people up and make them feel worse,” she says. They make “‘sui-fuel,’ memes to get people even more depressed, with the idea that you might ‘rope’—which is kill yourself—or you might even go and do a murder-suicide.”
Foreman’s colleague Bart Andrews, another clinical psychologist and executive board member at the American Association of Suicidology, is a full-throated advocate for suicide memes as an alternative to these destructive depths. Andrews bucks the traditional wisdom on suicide contagion, the idea that suicidal thoughts can spread through a community like a virus. It’s an evidence-based notion that’s been widely unchallenged for decades, and informs national and international guidelines for media coverage of suicide. Andrews acknowledges that irresponsible reporting of suicide—such as sensationalistic, needlessly graphic descriptions of celebrity suicide—likely has population-level effects. But if safe-messaging guidelines prevent people from having meaningful conversations, Andrews contends, they can be deadly.