Real grieving after suicide doesn’t occur on social media


Recently, I learned that YouTube star Stevie Ryan completed suicide. As she found her fame via social media, her death has also been the focus of the virtual world. Her death spawns a tremendous amount of questions that are left unanswered regarding why and how did this happen.

In case you missed the details of the story, Stevie completed suicide by hanging. She had tweeted the day before that, “The man of my dreams will now only be in my dreams. I’ll miss you every day, forever. I love you my Pa.” This was in reference to the grief she was struggling with after her grandfather died in the larger context of her fight with depression. She disclosed this information while co-hosting a podcast, “Mentally Ch(ill),” on the topic death, grieving and lithium.

After learning of the loss of Ryan, Twitter and YouTube erupted with sorrow including her ex-boyfriend actor, Drake Bell tweeted, “Please wake me from this nightmare … My heart is crushed.” Her Twitter account has been bombarded by messages and #stevieryan is now trending.

Our ability to utilize social media to share information is remarkable. We have come a far distance from 150 years ago when Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson. We have the ability to live feed at any time anywhere but how is this affecting us? More importantly, can we harness the power of social media to help identify ways to help each other? Could we have identified more signs of suffering from Stevie as she lived so much of her life online?

As a majority of Americans derive their medical knowledge from television, one can assume this is the case about suicide. The common theme in picture frames is sad teenager sitting on bed -> picture of pills -> mother walks in to the room -> limp body -> cries and yells -> dressed in black at funeral service-> life goes on like before event. As a child psychiatrist and palliative care physician, this simplification of events leading up to suicide and death feel incredibly inaccurate. It is like describing the Mona Lisa as a frown emoji.

The complex fabric of suicide was on full display in the airing of “13 Reasons Why.” This series flushes out how a teenager is faced with a multitude of stressful events in her life including bullying and rape that lead to her depression and suicide. Many parents in my office have shared an overall concern that talking about suicide will cause suicide in adolescents. I would suggest this mindset is similar to those who previously believed that we should not talk about sex or drugs in high schools as it would inaccurately cause more pregnancies and substance dependence.

A discussion of suicide can have a meaningful impact in prevention as education can be provided on how to identify early signs. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and grief have clear symptoms that friends, teachers and parents can look for and then direct individuals to get treatment. As most teenagers spend a 1/3 of their time in the virtual world, we need to meet them in that space alongside the classroom and living room. Furthermore, we need to increase our assistance after a friend (real life or virtual) dies.

Unfortunately, when someone does complete suicide it can have long lasting effects on friends, families and schools. Furthermore, we now must include social networks as they give access to individuals that people have never met in real life but whom they feel connected to. For example, as I began to discuss this article with a friend via text, he was shocked to learn of Stevie’s death. Neither of us had ever met her, but we had a deep sense of loss. This type of event is only occurring in history at this moment — learning of a person’s death on social media, sharing it via a non-verbal method and grief over someone we never met. To provide a reference point to how drastically different this is compared to our history, we only need to go to the Vietnam War in which families learned of a soldier’s death months after the event from an army chaplain.

Social media can be a powerful tool to help us grieve. Memorial pages can be setup on Facebook, old pictures can be posted on Instagram and memories can be shared on Twitter. In many ways, a virtual funeral procession begins and can serve as a form of immortality for an individual. From this though a negative consequence arises as we can be inundated with the loss.

Normal grieving is not the dressed in black at funeral service -> life goes on like before event. As many parents have told me, you never get over the death of a child, but you learn to live with it. It takes time and space. Social media’s continual pinging and beeping with updates can interfere with this natural process. Depending on the relationship from a parent to a follower, one must consider taking a sabbatical from the online network. Healing will not occur online but offline in moments of silence and reflection.

The loss of Stevie Ryan will continue to have a ripple effect on her family, friends and followers. In her last podcast hours after her grandfather died and a few days before she killed herself, she said “I guess you can never really prepare yourself for death … you can only … I don’t know what for it.” I wish someone could have noticed this blank in her statement and assisted in her getting help. Maybe then she could have grieved in a different way to allow her to still be with us.

David Buxton is a psychiatrist and palliative care physician.  He can be reached on Twitter @DavidBuxtonMD.

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