"JUST took it. I'm f***ing terrified."
These are the last, frightened words of a 25-year-old woman who took her own life while 'egged on' by strangers on an "evil" online suicide forum.
"Beautiful" Amazon worker Shawn Shatto poisoned herself in her bedroom last year, while her mum Jackie Bieber worked from home just feet away.
She live-blogged her final moments on a discussion forum – yet instead of urging her to seek help, other vulnerable users told her: "Safe travels".
Shawn was, her mum claims, the victim of "pro-choice" suicide forums and webpages which are easily accessible via search engine giants like Google.
Suicide forums 'preying on kids as young as 9'
A Sun Online investigation has found a string of explicit and harmful websites are offering struggling young people suicide tips, step-by-step instructions and drawings, and even 'success rates' for different methods.
Available on the normal Internet rather than the Dark Web, these sites have been partly blamed in suicide cases both in the UK and abroad – with children as young as nine said to be among those accessing damaging content.
And for grieving parents like Jackie, they are "predatory" platforms that must be shut down, as millions of people struggle with their mental health and lonely youngsters spend more hours online during the Covid pandemic.
"Shawn was talking with them live," Jackie, 44, tells us through tears.
"She said, 'I feel bad because my mum is just down the hall from me'. I was here the whole time, just sitting here, working.
My daughter's last words to anyone on this Earth were, ‘I’m f***ing terrified’. They just said, 'safe travels, good luck'
"Someone said their only concern was that, if I heard something, I might call for help and it might not work. That was their only concern.
"No one said, ‘maybe you should go talk to your mum before you do this'."
She adds: "My daughter's last words to anyone on this Earth were, ‘I’m f***ing terrified’. They just said, 'safe travels, good luck'."
Over 15k vulnerable users
In April this year, a 23-year-old man from Leeds was found dead on his family's sofa after accessing the same discussion forum as Shawn.
We are choosing not to name the site – which boasts more than 15,000 members and nearly 50,000 online threads – due to its dangerous content.
And in August 2018, 24-year-old Callie Lewis, from Kent, ended her own life in a tent just weeks after seeking solace in a "pro-choice" suicide forum.
Other webpages offer disturbingly detailed suicide instructions. Though they're not highlighted by Google – which list the Samaritans' 24-hour helpline number as its top result – they can be found by name.
'My boy got step-by-step tips'
“Daniel got step-by-step instructions," says mum Emma Oliver, whose 15-year-old son Daniel Long hanged himself while revising for his GCSEs.
"I remember saying to the police, 'he’s Googled it – and he did."
Emma, now 46, was cooking a Sunday roast at her family's home in Leeds, West Yorkshire, in February 2017 when Daniel took his life upstairs.
The "happy-go-lucky" youngster, who had become extremely stressed about his exams, was found by his mum and died in hospital two days later.
"There's too much on the Internet. If you can remove [webpages on] making bombs and that, surely you can remove [ones on] suicide?" adds Emma.
Though the webpage Daniel visited has since been shut down, his mum tells us that she's "really shocked" some suicide forums are still so accessible.
Unlike well-moderated sites, these pages are incredibly explicit.
"I started to have panic attacks reading it," she says of one 'goodbye' comment thread. "Strangers are actually wishing them a peaceful death!"
She adds that while the Samaritans' charity helpline number is useful, "at 15 years old, I don't know if Daniel knew what the Samaritans was".
From 'death challenges' to 28 ways of taking your life
Eric Lane, 72, a helpline volunteer for another charity, Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS), lost his fiancée Emma to suicide in 2015.
Though Emma isn't believed to have looked at any suicide forums or websites before she took her own life aged 30, Eric says he's come across "evidence of these sites being used" through his voluntary work.
He's also carried out his own research into such webpages, and says he was "absolutely horrified" by the number of search results that popped up.
"The very first one I came across was a site that had 28 ways of taking your life. There's a column that gives you the lethality," he recalls.
Other bereaved Brits have told us of sites that give users "50 challenges".
The last challenge, chillingly, is "kill yourself".
And earlier this month, Tory MP Owen Paterson vowed to help crack down on pro-suicide websites after the death of his "loving" wife Rose in June.
An inquest heard Aintree Racecourse chairman Rose, 64, took her own life in Shropshire woodland after searching suicide methods on the Internet.
Mr Paterson, who has branded pro-suicide sites "horribly inviting", said he had "no indication" his wife had been thinking of taking her own life.
And Eric, from Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, tells us: "I don’t think there are many people who know their loved ones have been on suicide forums.
"It’s easy to wipe off any information."
A parent's worst nightmare
For Jackie, from Pennsylvania, US, the first sign that her "super smart" daughter Shawn had accessed a suicide forum tragically came too late.
"When I saw her on the floor I didn’t even know what had happened," she recalls, describing the moment she went to check on Shawn in her room.
"I thought, ‘Oh my God, she fell’. I thought maybe she'd become dizzy and fallen down, or maybe it was a heart attack or an aneurysm."
But she adds: "She was blue and cold. I tried so hard to bring her back.
"[Then] we opened up her phone and saw the messages and we knew."
Branded 'ugly' by bullies
"Sweet" Shawn, who was a loving big sister to twins William and Wesley, now eight, and 11-year-old Katherine, had been bullied at school.
"She would never say a mean thing about anyone, ever," says her mum.
"But she got picked on a lot. Girls would call her ‘ugly’ and ‘fat’.
"She wasn’t but kids are just so mean.”
Once a "very goofy" child who loved indie music, art and Harry Potter, and who dreamed of curing cancer, Shawn became consumed by anxiety.
She dropped out of university and ended up cleaning toilets – with her mental health struggles stopping her from taking on customer-facing roles.
"She couldn’t even look at someone in the eye," recalls Jackie.
"She [also] hated even leaving the house. She would be shaking in fear."
SUICIDE FORUMS: ‘A BLESSING & A CURSE’
Experts tell Sun Online that vulnerable youngsters should steer clear of such forums – which can provide dangerous "ideas".
Yet they also say that forums which are moderated and run alongside professionals in the mental health field can be a "blessing".
Former child rights lawyer and cyber security CEO Nadia Kadhim tells us that the fact mental health "remains taboo" makes the "prevention of suicide and self-harm extremely difficult".
She adds: "Though the ease with which dangerous content can be accessed is not the sole reason for suicide or self-harm, the information shared on these websites and its accessibility make it a lot easier for vulnerable youngsters to get ideas and feel supported in their intention to harm themselves."
However, Nadia, of Naq Cyber, says she doesn't believe that pushing for a ban on such forums – "though understandable" – is the solution.
"Policing cyberspace with law is very difficult because if one forum closes down, it will only be a matter of time before another one pops up," she says.
"Children and teenagers need to be protected on- and offline, but they also have certain rights, like the right to information. It’s a difficult balancing act for lawmakers to strike."
She continues: "The best way to protect our children, our teenagers and ourselves online is through education. We have to learn about online risks and talk openly to our children about what they should and shouldn’t do."
Model Rebecca McAllister, founder of mental health blog Rebecca’s World, tells us forums "can be both a blessing and a curse, with those that are unmonitored edging more toward the former".
"The forum’s niche is not particularly relevant, the issue is the members within it and their intentions to promote and encourage suicide," she says.
She adds that those involved "within a circle that leads another to suicide" should be held accountable and criminally charged for their actions.
"It’s important to remember that there’s good and bad in every person, so I would encourage anyone under 18 to avoid such forums as the mind is still of a vulnerable nature," she tells us.
"Even those who are classed as adults should still exercise caution online, as their own mentality and state of mind may cause them to make misjudged decisions."
For years, Shawn struggled. Living at home, she took medication and had sessions with a psychologist, a psychotherapist and even a hypnotist.
But in April 2019, then working for Amazon, her condition worsened.
"She was withdrawing from us, especially from her siblings, whom she adored," says Jackie, now married to husband Chip, 47.
"She definitely started going downhill."
Unbeknown to the mum, this was around the time Shawn joined the suicide forum. And weeks later, she posted her last, desperate messages on the site.
When I saw her on the floor I didn’t even know what had happened. I thought maybe she'd become dizzy and fallen down, or maybe it was a heart attack
“I didn’t hear anything from her all day and I figured she was sleeping," recalls Jackie. “Her sleeping and eating patterns were always strange.”
But after knocking on her daughter's door, the mum was confronted by her worst nightmare: Shawn, lying lifeless on the floor.
"It was something I’ll never, ever be able to get out of my head," she weeps.
“Shawn was my world. I had her when I was 18. She was at my high school and college graduations. My whole world is just upside down right now."
Shawn had allegedly been instructed on how to end her life – and how to avoid raising the alarm – by other members of the suicide forum.
Her heartbroken mum is now fighting to get the site shut down, claiming some young users are even being asked to video-tape their suicides.
“It’s not the Dark Web – anyone can go on there, you don’t even have to log in," says Jackie, who works in real estate.
"I will never forget the feeling when I opened my daughter’s phone.”
A 'pro-choice' community
The forum describes itself as a "pro-choice" community that does "not encourage, promote, advise, suggest, nor aid suicide in any way or form".
However, it says it supports members' "right to end" their own lives, and admits that "there is information on this site that if used could kill you".
Our investigation unearthed detailed illustrations, harrowing farewell messages, and suggestions of where to buy deadly substances on the site.
Users apparently verified as dead had a dash through their screen names.
We came across a "goodbye" message from one of these users, posted last week. Another member had replied to them: "You deserve the best."
And Jackie believes, if it wasn't for the site, Shawn "would be here".
Someone said, 'should I tell my parents'? A bunch of people said, 'no, absolutely not'
“You can tell [some users] are kids – someone said, 'should I tell my parents'? A bunch of people said, 'no, absolutely not'," she says.
“They tell you what to say to make your parents think you’re OK.
"They mock the whole mental health industry."
According to Google, people who search for certain suicide-related queries will be automatically shown the phone number of trusted organisations that can provide help and support – such as the Samaritans in the UK.
The tech giant also bans autocomplete search on terms such as 'suicide' and 'self-harm', and defers to local law when it comes to its displayed results.
Mums' fight for change
But bereaved parents like Jackie and Daniel's mum Emma want "sick" suicide forums and websites to be removed from the web altogether.
After all, they say, they know how lethal such content can be.
"I’ll never be the same after this, but I have to fight for Shawn, my other kids, and for every kid out there," Jackie tells us.
"I’ll never, ever stop trying.”
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
EVERY 90 minutes in the UK a life is lost to suicide.
It doesn't discriminate, touching the lives of people in every corner of society – from the homeless and unemployed to builders and doctors, reality stars and footballers.
It's the biggest killer of people under the age of 35, more deadly than cancer and car crashes.
And men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.
Yet it's rarely spoken of, a taboo that threatens to continue its deadly rampage unless we all stop and take notice, now.
That is why The Sun launched the You're Not Alone campaign.
The aim is that by sharing practical advice, raising awareness and breaking down the barriers people face when talking about their mental health, we can all do our bit to help save lives.
Let's all vow to ask for help when we need it, and listen out for others… You're Not Alone.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help dealing with mental health problems, the following organisations provide support:
- CALM, www.thecalmzone.net, 0800 585 858
- Heads Together, www.headstogether.org.uk
- Mind, www.mind.org.uk, 0300 123 3393
- Papyrus, www.papyrus-uk.org, 0800 068 41 41
- Samaritans, www.samaritans.org, 116 123
As for Emma, she often spends time in her beloved son's bedroom – which she's kept the same, with even Daniel's 2017 calendar frozen in time.
“I’ve managed to wash his clothes and I’ve put them in a memory box," says the mum, who has set up a charity, Team Daniel, in her boy's name.
"But everything’s the same."
According to official figures, 187 youngsters aged between 10 and 19 took their lives in England and Wales in 2017 – up from 112 in 2010.
Like Daniel, most – if not all – of these will have had access to the Internet.
Tough new sanctions
The Government's Online Harms Bill calls for an independent regulator to hold tech giants to account for neglecting child safety on their platforms.
It could mean hefty fines if harmful material is not removed swiftly.
When approached about the suicide forums we investigated, a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spokesperson told the Sun Online: "This kind of content is completely unacceptable and we will soon be introducing new laws to tackle it.
"There will be tough sanctions for online companies which fail to fulfil a new legal duty to protect their users from harmful material."
But for many grieving families, the move is coming too late.
"Daniel's never out of my thoughts," Emma adds.
"It’s been almost four years. It’s coming up to Christmas so I feel that anxiety again. I shouldn’t say it really but it’s s***."
- If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please call the Samaritans on (free) 116123
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