Online Friend Threatens to Kill Himself
August 7, 2006 9:42 PM   Subscribe

A person I've been chatting with online for about 1.5 years has just updated his Yahoo! profile saying that he's going to kill himself in about a week...

He and I haven't talked online for a few months, so I don't know what's going on in his life, but I sent him a few IM's asking if he's serious about it, and he responded (once I had logged out) that he is very serious and plans to commit suicide this weekend.

I have never met this person IRL, nor do I have his phone number or address. All I have is an old e-mail with what I think is his full name (a pretty common name of Irish origin). He (and I) live in Manhattan, so there are lots of people with this name, which complicates things.

I called the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and the local 1800 LIFENET hotline, only to be told by both that I needed to contact Yahoo! and get them to follow up on this. Fine. So I tracked down the Yahoo! Corporate HQ number, talked with an operator there, and was put through to a voicemail for their legal department where I left a detailed message about the situation, but nobody has called me back or written me an e-mail in response, and I'm getting concerned.

My worry is that NYPD won't respond quickly or efficiently to this, if I call them. They may not even take it seriously, since all I have is a username and his full name (probably). But I'm taking this seriously and would like some advice here, since apparently, I've got about 5 days to do something to stop him.

I also set up a temporary e-mail for this:, if I need to be contacted.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Could you ask him for his phone #?
posted by reverendX at 9:53 PM on August 7, 2006

You could try contacting the Police. They can expediate the process of finding the guy if necessary. Try calling Yahoo! again. I doubt Yahoo! would want this guy to kill himself and then have it get out that they were warned by you with ample time to stop it.
posted by ChazB at 9:59 PM on August 7, 2006

I appreciate your concern, your fear, you anguish over this.

But, you're not close enough to have chatted with him in several months, or to have met him in a year and a half, despite living on the same 20 square mile island. And as you write, you don't know what's going on in his life.

That said, if he's publicizing his suicide beforehand, it's likely a cry for help. In which case, as you write, you have five days to talk him out of it.

But call me a crotchety old free thinker, I believe suicide is every person's right. Indeed, I don't know if any right is more basic, and more necessary yo human dignity.

Maybe he's terminally ill. Maybe he's terminally depressed. Try to persuade him, counsel him, offer him your help.

But I don't know if your relationship with a online chat pal is close enough to morally justify your taking away his right to choose whether to live or end his life.
posted by orthogonality at 10:01 PM on August 7, 2006

I second calling Yahoo! again. And Again. Your query should not stop at a voicemail, you need to keep trying until you get a real person.

You also haven't said if you have tried contacting the police. Have you? Don't assume they won't "respond quickly or efficiently" to this if you haven't even spoken to anyone there - get in contact as soon as possible, because if they are serious about helping they will have better tools than you have available to do so.
posted by Jimbob at 10:02 PM on August 7, 2006

You might ask the folks at Yahoo how they think this will play in the press: "Man kills self after Yahoo fails to disclose information that could have saved him."
posted by LarryC at 10:06 PM on August 7, 2006

Don't deal with Yahoo! legal. Try looking for a moderator or other support person who actually may look at the site.
posted by scarabic at 10:08 PM on August 7, 2006

Have you thought about taking it to the local news? I'm sure that Yahoo! will be very responsive to a news channel's request for information about the man they are going to let die.
posted by oddman at 10:20 PM on August 7, 2006

Print his profile out now. Just in case he changes it.

I second (third?) the idea of getting the police involved. It seems likely to me that Yahoo would simply give the information on the profile's real identity to the NYPD. If they won't, the NYPD could easily get a subpoena for the information. This is obviously a time-sensitive issue, so I can't imagine they'd drag their heels.

Yahoo probably cannot divulge his information to you due to their privacy policy. (For all they know, you could be the one trying to harm him.) If you disregard the advice of calling the police, try calling Yahoo again and just asking them to look at his profile. Ask for names when you talk to people. This is literally a matter of life and death, so you shouldn't be ending up in voicemail. If nothing else, have them be the ones to call the police. (Yet again, though, I think it's probably best if you contact them directly.)

As others have said, advertising that he's going to kill himself several days in advance is clearly a cry for help.
posted by fogster at 10:27 PM on August 7, 2006

He does that so everyone can feel like panicked crap for that whole week and tell him how great he is

Which only goes to show how much he needs to get some help.
posted by fogster at 10:48 PM on August 7, 2006

I agree with xmutex. It's a cry for help and it's weak. But as I have learned through a similar experience, even though it's a cry for help it's something he may seriously end up doing so you can't take the risk that he's just doing it for some attention.

You have about a week to do something. If he's serious about getting help, ask him for his contact details and hopefully he'll give them to you. If he says no the first time, try and try again.

Failing that, I second what fogster has said. Tell them what's happening, get them to get the police involved, and then hope that it all works out for the best, because without any other real information, that's all you can really do.
posted by Effigy2000 at 10:52 PM on August 7, 2006 claims you can get to an actual human operator at yahoo by doing the following:

408-349-1572 Pres 0 repeatedly, ignoring error messages.
posted by clarahamster at 11:02 PM on August 7, 2006

clarahamster, anonymous did get through to an actual human operator at Yahoo!, that operator then transferred them to the legal department's voicemail.
posted by Jimbob at 11:07 PM on August 7, 2006

It is a cry for help, yes. Most people who announce in advance such desire want to be talked out of it. Maintaining your contact with this person and attempting yourself to talk them out of it may very well work. At the very least attempt to get them to delay. The moderator suggestion sounds great, but if the red tape prevents direct contact at least keep up the online contact. Sometimes people just need a friend, unseen and at the end of an electronic tether even. Suicide is the ultimate selfish act, yet most people who contemplate it are not at heart that selfish. Rather, they are weak. Let them know how much pain they will inflict upon you if they do it. Let them know that despite distance you care deeply about them. We all experience dark times, yet with patience things will eventually get better.
posted by caddis at 11:16 PM on August 7, 2006

You're a good person to be so worried for a person you barely know. And it sounds like you've been working hard to get an authority to intervene. You've already gone out of your way for this person.

Acknowledgng what he had in his profile to him via IM was good. If you are still in IM or email contact, you could request that if he's thinking of hurting or killing himself, would he please call somebody (1800suicide, or his therapist if he has one, etc) first? Contracting like this is pretty common stall. You're not telling him what he can or can't do, or what he should or shouldn't do; frame it as a favor to you. Basically, the goal is to delay the suicide a little bit until they can get more help.

Also, it can't hurt to ask for a phone number or contact info. If you get one, it doesn't mean you have to call him--you can give the # to the police so they can find him, or you can give it to the help line to call him & go from there.

Sure, he might refuse either of these requests, but you won't hurt him by asking. Even if someone really wants to die, often some part of them still wants to live; that's the part that agrees to these type of requests even though they know the goal is to prevent their suicide (and it's the part that posts suicide plans in a Yahoo profile).

You are not responsible for "stopping" his suicide, though. But contacting him as opposed to contacting Yahoo isn't going to hurt him. You're not going to "push" him into suicide, so don't be afraid of saying the wrong thing if you do decide to email him.

p.s. for any matter (not just this), if you're every wondering about whether or not you should call the police, it means you should probably be calling the police. Once they have the info, they can decide whether they do or don't act on it. That's their end of the job.
posted by neda at 11:37 PM on August 7, 2006

Picking up on what caddis said above, it's not so easy for an adult to kill themselves, unless they rationally plan, and have equipment and methods known to be effective. But if they do, you can not stop a person determined to kill themselves from doing so.

Either way, do what others have suggested here regarding further notifications to Yahoo, and to NYPD, and whatever follow ups, if any, are suggested to you. Then, step back from the fallout. Once a casual acquaintance has done what they reasonably can to notify those able to intervene professionally, they've met any Good Samaritan ethical obligations they may have.
posted by paulsc at 12:17 AM on August 8, 2006

When you talk to people at Yahoo get the name of everyone you talk to. Make it clear you take this seriously. This will help scare them into being implicated in letting someone die needlessly, and will help you get through the bureaucracy.

At least one would hope it would.
posted by edd at 1:18 AM on August 8, 2006

You said that you left him a message and he responded. That's good. That means that you have a means of contacting him, and he's still talking. Whilst he's talking to you, he's not doing anything permanent to himself. Keep him talking. Ask him for details of exactly when and how he plans to do himself in. For one thing, it will give you a better idea of exactly how serious about this he really is. If he knows precisely what and when he's going to do it, and has made the arrangements already, then he's more likely to be serious about going through with it. And if you know what his planned method is, you've got a better chance of convincing him it's a bad idea. You can tell him about the liklihood of his method backfiring and leaving him worse off than ever. Or about the pain his choice of exit method will cause to whoever gets to find him and clean up the mess. You can tell him about the pain and suffering involved in dying from a drug overdose. Or about the brain damage and vegetatative state you can get left in if a hanging fails or the bullet misses by a fraction of an inch. Tell him how his death would affect you - how you would feel if you found out he kiled himself and you couldn't stop it.

Ask him about what's happening in his life that makes him want to kill himself. It's a lot to ask of you, but just talking can be the difference between life and death. You don't have to say any magic words - just be there to listen. Maybe he needs someone to be at the other end of the computer or (even better) phone line whilst he tells them how much his life sucks. Maybe you could offer to meet up with him in a public cafe or something to talk for a while. Suicide hotlines can be a literal lifesaver, but so can friends. It's tough to listen to that kind of stuff. Very tough. I spent five hours on the phone with a complete stranger several years ago, because he'd posted a suicide threat to a newsgroup, and I found his homepage which had a phone number on it. One of the most difficult nights of my life, but I don't regret a minute of it.
posted by talitha_kumi at 3:28 AM on August 8, 2006 [2 favorites]

If he put it on his Yahoo profile, it was a cry for help. Ask him about it.
posted by k8t at 4:48 AM on August 8, 2006

Try the police where Yahoo HQ is located. I recall reading something about the police in Loudoun County (VA) having several people working solely on getting information out of AOL for law enforcement purposes.
posted by probablysteve at 4:57 AM on August 8, 2006

A "cry for help"? Maybe. Or, this might be his anger lashing out at the world. Don't get yourself too deep into this man's troubles. You can't save his life. Don't expect gratitude should you meet him.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:50 AM on August 8, 2006

Don't expect gratitude should you meet him.

I guess if the only reason you would try to save somebody's life was the expectation of a nice warm gush of gratitude afterwards, this might be a relevant consideration.
posted by languagehat at 5:58 AM on August 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

If the person has a distinctive user name, you could try googling the user name to see if you can get more information. It's also possible that if you call a suicide prevention hotline they would be able to help you find out who the person is. They probably work closely with the police and might know who to contact at Yahoo.
posted by jefeweiss at 6:21 AM on August 8, 2006

Encouraging someone to be careful with themselves, both physically and emotionally, is not the same as encouraging them to do nothing, languagehat. For shame.

I happen to agree with her. You owe it to yourself and the universe to make an effort to help this person. You also owe it to yourself to be careful and skeptical that this person might be a fraud, user or dangerously unstable and not get drawn into their fuckup-ed-ness.
posted by phearlez at 11:57 AM on August 8, 2006

As soon as you get an operator, explain the situation and ask for their immediate supervisor. Work your way up the hierarchy during regular business hours. If Yahoo is sending you to voicemail, then they probably think you're a wonk. As soon as you get someone who takes you seriously, ask for their immediate contact information. If you get voicemail, go back to your best contact. Simply ask that Yahoo forwards the contact information to the relevant PD. Odds are that they won't give it directly to you.

Search for your friend's online presence on other services and work the system the same way. If you're lucky, they're active on a smaller community where the administator will take you seriously and won't have their hands tied by red tape.

Hire a private investigator.

A real first and last name is a very, very good starting point, no matter how common the name is. You must know something about where they work or used to work or at least the industry they work in? Rack your brain for clues. Were they ever involved in any clubs? Call everyone in the phonebook with the same name and/or initials. 100 numbers divided by a few helpers can be done in no time. One person can do it in an afternoon.

Hit MySpace and Friendster with their first, last name or email addresses. Do you know where they ever went to school? Hit the alumni association. Try Where are their email addresses through? Contact those ISPs. People who believe your story will want to help. Recruit. Recruit. Recruit.

Maintain contact with your friend through all known means. The cry for help is a good sign that they want to be stopped. The firm deadline is a sign that they're serious.

This is a very scary situation for you to be in, but keep in mind that online friends and communities in the past have successfully prevented a suicide under these exact same circumstances, although I can't find the links right now.
posted by Skwirl at 12:35 PM on August 8, 2006

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