12/04/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 EST

Online Suicides: The Dangerous Anonymity That Helps Drive Them

A University of Guelph student's decision to stream his suicide attempt on the internet this past weekend raises the obvious question about what would drive him to want to end his life.

But equally perplexing is the fact that 200 people signed up to an online chat room to watch him do it — and in some cases goaded him on.

How could anyone take pleasure in witnessing another human take his own life?

Ian Colman, Canada Research Chair in mental health at the University of Ottawa, says part of the answer is that the anonymity of the web allows people to engage in conduct that they likely wouldn't in real life.

"The internet provides a medium through which we can be voyeurs to all sorts of human behaviour," he says.

But a key difference between witnessing a suicide online and seeing one in person, says Colman, is that you're less likely to take action when you see it on a screen.

He says the physical distance from the actual event leads to complacency and a "diffusion of responsibility," meaning those watching are less compelled to try and stop an event like this from being carried out.

In fact, in this case, some of those watching were actively encouraging the young man to go through with his threat, which he did by setting fire to his dorm room and crawling into bed while a webcam live-streamed the event.

That kind of perverse cheerleading can be another aspect of these online spectacles, some psychologists say.

The 4chan component

The Guelph student announced his intention to take his life on, an anonymous message board that has become notorious for its controversial content.

4chan users quickly signed up to watch the video, even encouraging him to go through with his plans.

4chan has a longstanding reputation for anti-social behaviour, says Cole Stryker, author of the book Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan's Army Conquered the Web.

Aimee Morrison, an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, told CBC's The Morning Edition that the site is like "a perpetual sleepover party with no parental supervision."

Due to its anonymity, 4chan "encourages people to be as outrageous as they wouldn't be if they were operating under their real name," says Stryker.

He says 4chan posters poke fun at every conceivable subject and pride themselves on breaking taboos — in fact, suicide is a recurring topic.

In one of his 4chan posts prior to his suicide attempt, the Guelph student said he was going to be "an hero" — an apparently caustic reference to the death of Mitchell Henderson, a 12-year-old from Minnesota who committed suicide in 2006.

After Henderson died, friends started a memorial page on MySpace, where one poster repeatedly called him "an hero," an awkward phrase that some 4chan posters quickly adopted as a sneering verb for committing suicide.

"It was just a grammar mistake, but it became a meme where people [on 4chan] said, 'You should kill yourself, you should 'an hero,'" says Stryker.

The attitude of many of witnesses in this sort of situation, says Baillie, is that the individual is doing this to themselves, so "if I'm encouraging them, it's that they want to do it anyway."

Colman says that what complicates this sort of extreme act is that despite the individual's bluster, it may in fact be an elaborate cry for help.

"They're struggling with something really difficult, and they don't know where to turn, and they're hoping that an extreme gesture like this will precipitate a major change in their lives, for the better," he says.

Even mental health clinicians can have trouble determining whether an individual is serious about taking his or her life, or is hoping for an intervention, he says.

"You can imagine if you're just somebody who's observing a situation online — it can be immensely difficult to figure out whether somebody's actually thinking of going through with something or not."

Desperate act

Officials at the University of Guelph confirmed that on Saturday night, a 20-year-old student apparently tried to kill himself by setting his fourth-floor room at the Dundas Hall residence on fire — while filming it on a webcam.

In the video, the student, whose name has not been released, sets the fire, turns off the lights and crawls into bed.

The Guelph Fire Department extinguished the blaze. The student suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries and is now in stable condition at Guelph General Hospital, according to the university.

Dr. Patrick Baillie, a senior psychologist with Alberta Health Services, says the basic explanation for wanting to watch such a spectacle is morbid curiosity.

He says it's the same reason so many people sought out the video of Luka Magnotta allegedly killing Chinese exchange student Jun Lin last spring, to the point where all that voyeurism crashed Best Gore, the site housing the video.

"These things have a certain shock value," he says.

Speaking specifically about the Magnotta clip, Dr. Baillie said "everybody knows precisely what's in this video, and yet people are going for that gruesome, wow-I-haven't-seen-something-quite-like-this-before."

With files from Andrea Bellemare