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18 Feb, 2012 08:27

Social network status: Alive

Social network status: Alive

The Russian analog of Facebook, Vkontakte, has started shutting down groups mentioning suicide. The move follows what some are calling an epidemic of teen suicides in February.

"Tomorrow will never come. I will die today” was the name of one group created by suicide “enthusiasts” on Vkontakte.  It had 2,000 subscribers who shared their thoughts on the easiest ways to “end it.” The investigation of a recent suicide in Moscow showed that 15-year-old Alena Grafskaya was a member of the group. Investigators say that following instructions on the web page, she jumped off a roof on February 16. The group was consequently shut down, and Vkontakte says it will close any group with similar content by request of any user.

According to UNICEF, Russia has the third-highest youth suicide rate in the world. It follows China and India, while the US ranks fourth.45% percent of young girls and 27% percent of young men contemplate suicide.

Earlier this month, a 15-year-old boy jumped out a Moscow window, explaining in a note that he had done so due to an argument with his parents. Two 14-year-old girls who reportedly had trouble in school jumped to their deaths while holding hands. Russian media in several regions of the country have reported suicides this month, bringing expert claims of a media-induced “chain reaction.” Psychologists say suicide can spread like a virus, transmitted through communication. It’s a known fact that celebrity suicides have been followed by waves of fan suicides. Experts say that for those on the verge of jumping off a roof, hearing about someone else doing it could be the final encouragement. In 1974 David Phillips, a professor of sociology and suicide from the University of California at San Diego, came up with a term to describe the chain reaction. He called it the “Werther syndrome," and says it's now snowballing as social networks allow people to share their sorrows more easily. Sociologists say media reports about suicides can also give suicidal individuals food for thought.

Werther syndrome is a name psychologists gave to a “cluster” of suicides when teenagers are influenced by preceding suicides. It derives from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The sorrows of young Werther,” whose melancholy protagonist kills himself. The book was banned in some European states due to a chain of suicides among the novel's readers.

But should social networking be considered to be the root of all evil?There have also been cases in the US, where people who posted pre-suicide notes online received considerable support. The notes' authors received help and later confessed that they were about to kill themselves. Last week, American newspapers reported the story of Sam Sekulich from Illinois, who posted online that she hated her life and wanted to just “give up.” But help poured in on time, though she admitted she didn’t think anybody would pay attention. Now she is well and free of despair.