The Sticks and Stones children’s rhyme encourages victims of bullying to ignore the words, to refrain from retaliation, and to remain calm. This is sound advice for the most part. But it also implies that words are harmless. But the wrong words, at the wrong time, to a vulnerable person can cause unspeakable harm.
For example, this week I read about a 17-year-old girl, Michelle Carter. She is facing a manslaughter charge for encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, aged 18, to kill himself. She used text messages and phone calls to tell him to follow through with his suicide plan. Roy was sitting in his vehicle as the truck filled with carbon monoxide. He became nervous and got out. Michelle told him to ‘get back in’ and ‘it’s time to do it today’. He did in fact get back in the vehicle and die. This is a tragic story on several different levels.
Conrad had a difficult life. It was alleged that Conrad had become depressed after his parents’ divorce. He was physically and verbally abused by family members, and had done research on suicide methods. Michelle also had mental health struggles and was taking medications. I assume that they were for a psychiatric condition. It was implied that the medications could have impaired her judgment. Neither of these adolescents was in stable mental health.
Studies show that the rational part of a human’s brain isn’t fully developed until he or she is about 25 years old. That’s true for both Conrad and Michelle, who was one year younger than Conrad. As much as people would like to villainize Michelle for what appears to be a deliberate act, it is important to realize that they both have poor reasoning skills.
When people voice suicidal thoughts and intentions, it is believed that their pain, along with their mental illness may impair judgment, and an intervention to stop a suicide is ethically warranted. The suicidal person has lost the ability to carefully weigh the benefits and burdens of continued life. Therefore, health care providers intervene to provide life-sustaining treatments. Conrad lacked the wisdom of an adult or professional while struggling with life and death issues. He was not able to make a rational, autonomous decision to end his life. He sought support and advise from someone who was too young to be in that role.
Some believe Michelle did it to play the role of grieving girlfriend and to get attention. Perhaps, but she may have also believed she was being helpful. She also said ‘You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. No more bad thoughts and worries. You’ll be free. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die.’ She knew of his depression and may have wanted to help him find happiness through death. Many people support assisted death as a viable option for people who experience chronic pain. But assisted death, where legal, is performed by physicians for qualified terminally ill people who are going to die anyway. These people request and obtain medication to hasten their deaths. The decision is voluntary and cannot be coerced. Michelle’s irresponsible words can be seen as coercing Conrad’s death. Therefore, she faces a manslaughter charge.
Vulnerable people who lack access to appropriate care and support, may be greatly harmed by words. Conrad could have been helped, rather than harmed, if he had talked to the right person.
If you are approached by someone for support when they are contemplating suicide, help them get appropriate care. Explore the reasons for the request and discuss various ways of addressing their suffering. In the case of an adolescent, inform their family and get professional help. It is our ethical duty to intervene for life, not death. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.