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5 Things to Remember in the Wake of the Michelle Carter Verdict

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On Friday, Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, died by suicide in 2014. She was charged when text messages revealed Carter had urged Roy to kill himself, and had done nothing to help her boyfriend, who had confided he was feeling suicidal and told her how he was going to do it.

This is tough to swallow, and tough to talk about, for many reasons. First, when someone dies by suicide, it is a tragedy. Period. Suicide is preventable, and it’s heartbreaking when someone falls through the cracks and doesn’t get the support they deserve.

Then, if the person’s death makes its way through the national news cycle, it can be tough for people who’ve experienced suicidal thoughts, have attempted suicide or have lost someone to suicide to watch a story like this unfold. For one, the fact that suicide is being mentioned at all usually means someone died, which can be discouraging for those fighting their own battles with suicidal thoughts. On top of that, finding a piece that actually covers suicide responsibly is nearly impossible. (In CNN’s story about the verdict, they reveal the suicide means in the first graph, breaking one of the reporting on suicide guidelines.) Coverage of suicide rarely is informative about the nature of suicide, offers little hope or information about how we can prevent suicide and oftentimes doesn’t even provide resources for its readers.

A “viral” story about suicide also opens up the door for beloved “takes” from the peanut gallery. Whether it be co-workers, family members or people posting on Facebook, some people feel like they have to weigh in on a trending story. While this can be a chance to engage in productive conversations, we often have to weed through ignorant and hurtful comments to get a chance to educate — which is exhausting to do, especially if you’re not someone who’s open about suicidal thoughts or a past suicide attempt.

The story of  Michelle Carter’s conviction has an extra layer of complication because it really isn’t a story about someone who died by suicide. Instead, it’s being presented as a Nancy Grace-esque courtroom story about whether or not, legally, it’s possible to be responsible for someone’s suicide through a text.

We know words can really hurt and that cyberbullying is a real problem we can’t ignore. You don’t need to spend much much time in the YouTube comment section before reading the words, “Go kill yourself.” But this case, according to CNN, could set legal precedent for whether it’s a crime to tell someone to die by suicide. It’s important, it’s complicated, and it’s hard for people who are actually in the suicide prevention community to weigh in when a runaway train of a news story like this takes off. The fast-paced and sensationalistic nature of news makes it challenging for people with lived experience to take control of the narrative.

But when everyone is talking about a case that involves suicide, it is an opportunity for us to weigh in. So if you’re feeling lost about how to talk about this news story or if someone brings it up in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, here are some points to remember:

1. We can’t take the humanness out of stories about suicide. It’s not entertaining when someone takes their life, no matter how “interesting” or horrifying the backstory is. Beware of sensationalized versions of this story that paint the issue in black and white.

2. What we say to people matters. Alyse Ruriani, a suicide attempt survivor and activist, told me:

The bottom line is this: it’s incredibly sad and it’s a tragic reminder that words hold power and that what we do and say affects other people… from my perspective the story that needs to be told is more about how we need to remind people that how we interact with others and what we say can have a profound effect on others.

3. We need to educate young people about how to talk to someone who’s suicidal.

If you read the text messages Carter and her boyfriend exchanged (although I don’t recommend it), she actually starts by encouraging him to go get help in a hospital. When he refuses, she responds, “Part of me wants you to try something and fail just so you can go get help.”

That right there is pretty telling of the meager options available for people who are suicidal. While yes, most teens don’t encourage their peers to kill themselves when they don’t know what else to do, I think it’s fair to say most people wouldn’t be prepared in this situation. We need to do a better job educating young people about suicide so they better understand how to support a friend and themselves if this situation arises.

4. Suicide is never simple. Dese’Rae L . Stage, founder of Live Through This, told me, “Our job is to tell people that suicide is never simple, that bullying doesn’t cause suicide and that there are warning signs.” It’s hard to pick up the nuances of this in most news coverage.

5. There are resources for people who are suicidal. 

People who are suicidal need to know what resources are available. Here’s some resources they should know:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

The Crisis Text Line 24/7 by texting “START” to 741-741.

The Trevor Project, an LGBT crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline, 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386.

I didn’t want to write this story. News like this makes me want to get into bed, curl up in a ball and pretend suicide and bad people don’t exist. I see the news cycle passing before my eyes and I feel like I can’t catch it, can’t turn it into something good. But we can’t let the media alone dominate how stories about suicide are told. In the wake of stories that are hard to swallow, we need to keep telling stories of hope and of life. It’s OK to not have a polished, perfect answer, but we need to at least add a P.S. 

Yes, what a heartbreaking story. Wow, what an interesting verdict. But P.S. to you, you who’s losing hope, who’s feeling done — this doesn’t have to be it for you. We are here. We are listening. We are with you.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

Photo via The Associated Press, Glenn Silva/Fairhaven Neighborhood News, Pool

Originally published: June 17, 2017
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