published Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

What begins with the click of a mouse on Facebook can end with the pull of a trigger

A Facebook logo is seen on an iPad.
A Facebook logo is seen on an iPad.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Gilmer County Commissioner Randy Bell, 54, died Tuesday, 9-3-2013 of a gunshot wound to the head. Law enforcement does not suspect foul play.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Poll
Has anything posted on Facebook worried you?

Gilmer County, Ga., Sheriff Stacy Nicholson got an unexpected call the morning of Sept. 3. It was around 11, and it was a friend on the line, and his friend had seen something disturbing on Facebook. Someone needed to check on County Commissioner Randy Bell, the friend said.

About 15 minutes earlier, Bell had updated his status on the social network. A stroke hospitalized him in January, he wrote. His vision was fading. And the bank would sell his foreclosed-upon home later in the day. And, Bell added, he needed someone to care for his pets: Hairy the goofball, Abby the lovable, Punk the punk. Everything he owned should go to his daughter.

"It's not worth living this way," he wrote.

"Tell the coroner the front door is unlocked."

"Thanks for being my friend."

Soon after Nicholson received the call, deputies rushed about 15 miles from the sheriff's office to Bell's home, at 2662 Camp Branch Road in Ellijay, Ga.

They walked inside.

They were too late.

Bell, 54, had shot himself in the head.

It is difficult to say whether Bell's final Facebook update was a suicide note or a cry for help. The difference depends on the individual. Some use the website to etch the events of their life into a place as good as stone, a place that feels permanent.

But others -- many others -- use Facebook as a common form of communication among friends and loved ones. This is no secret. Facebook has replaced phone calls as the common form of communication for many people, and once upon a time phone calls replaced handwritten letters.

And, as communication evolves, so too do the outcries of suicide victims. Messages once expressed toward an intimate group can now be read by anyone who knew the victim. Sometimes, that message spreads even further, to websites and news organizations and then to any interested stranger.

You can hear stories like Bell's throughout the world.

There was the man in Brooklyn who updated his Facebook status in 2009 to announce the end of his life hours before someone found him dead. And, the same year, the man in Scotland who died three hours after telling the world goodbye in a status update. And the woman in Michigan who told her Facebook friends in 2012 that she would soon join her late mother, and then shot herself.

GET INVOLVED

If you or someone you know is thinking about ending his or her own life, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

UTC Students: For help from someone on campus during the day, call the Counseling and Personal Development Center at 423-425-4438. After 5 p.m. during the week and any time during the weekend, call campus security at 423-425-4357. Ask for the counselor on call.

This trend is not going away. According to Facebook, about 1.15 billion people use the site. And as long as the outlet is available, people will use it to express their innermost thoughts. Sometimes, those thoughts are dark, desperate.

But how do you categorize a Facebook status about suicide? Is it like a letter left behind for survivors? Or is it like one last phone call before the final decision, one last inquiry to see if someone cares?

In the moments before they kill themselves, people experience conflicting emotions, said Dr. Christine Moutier, the medical director at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Suicide victims want to die, but they feel confused. Instinctually, humans resist death. We fight to survive.

Sometimes, this internal fight leads to a cry for help.

"When there is something pressing on their minds," Moutier said, "most people will find a way to communicate."

Final messages are complex. They depend on the person, and the person's relationships with those closest to him or her. They may express why they killed themselves. Or they may apologize for something. Or they may express anger.

The value of that final message also may be difficult to measure. Tunnel vision overtakes suicide victims before their last act. They can't think about problems from a fresh perspective. Sometimes, they can't think about those who love them most.

"They hone in on desperation and hopelessness," Moutier said. "This seems like the only solution to the problem."

So, if you are on Facebook and see a status that makes you worry someone may end his or her life, what should you do?

If you know the person well, you should reach out as soon as you can, said Ashley Womble, director of communications and outreach at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Tell the person you care about him, and about the resources available to him.

If you don't know the person well, if he or she is merely an acquaintance, you can alert Facebook about the status update in question. The website's help center features a special section where you can submit that person's Facebook page.

One of the network's employees will then send a message to that person. It will tell the person that someone -- your identity is not revealed -- is worried about him. The message also will include a link to a website where the person can chat online with a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline counselor.

Katrina Gay has watched some suicide preventions unfold online. As the director of communications at the National Alliance of Mental Illness, Gay is in charge of the nonprofit organization's social media outlets.

About once a month, she said, someone will write a post on the NAMI Facebook page that suggests the person is thinking about ending his or her life. Usually, others on the page will write messages urging that person to call it off, to seek help.

Gay said NAMI employees look at the person's page. They see if the person is registered in NAMI's system, which would mean the staff has access to his phone number. If he isn't in the system, the staff will look on the Facebook page to see if they have any mutual friends.

If that doesn't work, an employee will call the local police.

"Do not take a threat lightly," Gay said. "You'd be surprised how much you know about people even in social media spaces."

Suicide is complicated. You can't trace its cause to a recent painful event like a breakup or a job loss, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. About 90 percent of victims have a significant psychiatric illness at the time of their death. These are often undiagnosed, untreated or both.

Before Sept. 3, Bell's mother did not expect he would take his own life. They talked once a week, Ramona Gordon said, and he sounded more tired than he used to. But he had a new responsibility beginning in January when he became one of Gilmer County's three commissioners.

And Bell was always a hard worker. As a boy, he took jobs picking his grandfather's strawberries and cleaning another man's horse stalls.

"Do you really want your son to work?" Gordon recalls a man asking her when her son answered a want ad in the newspaper as a child.

"I sure don't want to discourage him," she said.

As an adult, Bell ran his own company: ArtisticTile. He worked inside the homes of many people throughout Gilmer County. Gordon said the job blended Bell's loves. He enjoyed working with his hands, and he enjoyed feeling creative. For fun, he wrote music and poetry.

He could be gentle, too. He liked animals. As a boy, he told his mother he would one day own a dog-and-cat farm. As an adult, Gordon said, Bell and his wife nursed abandoned baby birds back to health, his wife feeding them with an eye dropper.

At the time of his death, though, Bell did not live with his former wife. It was just him and his pets. He was close to his animals. He called them his children, signed birthday cards "From Randy and the kids." When his pets died, he mourned.

On Sept. 3, after Bell asked his friends to look after the pets he would leave behind, one of his brothers called Gordon. She has her own Facebook page, but she had not heard about Bell's post, not until it was too late.

At first, she did not look at his message. The thought alone hurt her too much. Eventually, though, she began to wonder.

"I wanted to know what he said. I wanted to know how he felt," she said. "You never expect it."

So, a week after Bell's death, his mother logged on and read her son's final words.

"I was devastated," she said. "Just as devastated as when I heard the news."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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