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Experts see value in UofGuelph asking people not to watch 'disturbing' video

12/03/2013 05:41 EST | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO, Cananda - An Ontario university's plea for people to refrain from watching a video of a student's apparent suicide attempt is being seen as good advice, but some wonder if the institution's call will be heeded.

The University of Guelph's request comes after one of its students set fire to his dorm room over the weekend while apparently livestreaming what he called an attempt to end his life. The 20-year-old was taken to hospital with serious but non-life threatening injuries.

While it was initially broadcast through an online streaming site, a video of the incident was later posted online and sparked what the university called "disturbing social media activity."

Swirling online conversations and the existence of the video prompted the university's president to write an open letter addressing the "traumatic event."

"The University of Guelph is a community committed to civility and mutual respect. Please join me in refraining from watching or distributing this hurtful material," wrote Alastair Summerlee.

But at least one psychiatrist wondered just how effective the university's appeal would be.

"If something's going to be easily accessible, I'm just not sure how useful it is to put that sort of prohibition on it," said Dr. Marshall Korenblum, chief psychiatrist at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families in Toronto.

"Rather than say don't watch it, I would say if you're going to watch it, watch it with somebody. Particularly somebody that you trust, who could be of support to you if watching the video makes you upset."

An issue highlighted by the Guelph incident was just how much more work is needed on what Korenblum called "social media literacy."

"Just like with little kids, we say look both ways before you cross the street, we need to be saying look both ways before you cross the digital highway."

Korenblum said, however, that there was value in refraining from watching the video.

"The harm is it's going to lower the taboo against doing it," he said of watching the clip. "That's the harm, suggestibility, or the contagion effect."

Students already dealing with the stress of upcoming exams and end-of-semester deadlines could also be particularly vulnerable to the potential impact of the video, said a psychological trauma expert.

"It can really exacerbate psychological distress," said Dr. Katy Kamkar, clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

"If the images are very powerful, very traumatic, very distressing images, then that can lead to anxiety and distress in terms of people having intrusive thoughts and images, bad dreams, essentially just kind of feeling unwell."

The discussion swirling around the video could also leave some students feeling pressured to watch the clip, said Kamkar.

"If everyone else has watched it or people ask you 'did you watch it,' people might feel the pressure to watch it," she explained.

The important thing, Kamkar said, is that those who feel highly anxious or disturbed even days after watching the video or participating in discussion over it seek help.

Letting students know just where they could turn for that help is now a key focus for the University of Guelph.

The institution is trying to get the video removed from sites where it still exists and has also been posting links to the president's message and contacts for support services on web pages where discussion of the incident is still taking place.

"We're taking it very seriously," said university web manager Stuart Robertson. "We're doing our best to keep up with the conversation and sharing our information with people."

While the university doesn't expect to be able to take down every copy of the video, Robertson said its efforts are aimed at stopping the spread of misinformation, curbing negative discussion of the incident on social media and highlighting resources available for those in distress.

"If you're another person who is in a bad place right now, we have counselling services and resources that are available to help. I hope that anyone who would even be thinking along those lines would turn to the community around them and not do something self destructive," he said.

"Maybe one of the good things that could come out of this is people talking more openly about mental health and what resources are out there for people."

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