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This is the second day in a row I've discovered something suicidally whacky on Twitter. The first was when I found a profile with a UID number on it. Today was crazier. Vivek Namibar, a journalist with India Today with a verified handle on Twitter, posted a series of tweets that can only be described as extremely disturbing. You can check them out here:

The thread describes a "suicide challenge game" that involves the participants taking on various tasks assigned to them by a "curator" on the internet. Seemed complete nonsense, but the handle was a journalist and myth or fact, the tweet had already been shared almost a hundred times (and counting). So I decided to find out more.

Based on the myth that blue whales come to the shore when they want to die, the alleged game encourages participants to do various tasks that are depressing or scary or involve self-harm over a period of 49 days and they are asked to kill themselves on the 50th day. One person was arrested in Russia on charges of encouraging 16 people to commit suicide. Various reports and unsubstantiated numbers of teenagers who have killed themselves because of the game. Reports that it had spread to the UK, reports that French police were warning people. Vivek was warning that the game may have reached India with one death in Mumbai and another in Bangalore that he could not trace.

Given the gravity of the warning, I thought it was important to investigate and at least do some initial straight talking based on what I found.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Blue Whale Challenge exists

While it is hardly unheard of that depressed teenagers (and even perfectly healthy ones as well as adults) succumb to undesirable influences on the internet, given today's modern world of technology, it is impossible that if an organized game involving interaction over the internet over 50 days existed as a link in a large number of deaths in multiple countries, goes undetected. In the event of a suicide, a person's communications will be examined. If the suicide is suspected to have happened because of influences on the internet, there will be an investigation and at least some kind of concrete information would have come up. Given that several of the tasks reported involve self-harm, including making cuts on the body, carving a whale on various parts of the body and so on, it would have been hard evidence linking various suicides - there is no such evidence. There would be statements from the family about this kind of self-mutilation happening before the suicide. There are no such reports.

The game seems to be some sort of an urban myth that originated in Russia. It is possible that there may have been communications or some interactions involving depressed teenagers who committed suicide and tasks and so on, but there is absolutely no proof that such a game exists. It is just that we tend to notice more what has been brought to our attention, so if such a link is heard about, anything that could remotely fit starts looking like it is true. If I told you a pimple was forming on your nose when we met in person, you'd touch your nose a lot more, exploring its contour to catch that pimple!

The only place where the game seems to have spread is in Brazil with several suicides and suicide attempts allegedly related with the game reported. yet there is are no reports of investigations or arrests.

What is the real danger of the Blue Whale Game?

Well, it is obvious. An urban myth that runs wild and gives people ideas. Ideas that exploit others, or seductive ideas for suicidal people to make one last statement and dramatic exit. Another reporter who tried to find out about the game and wrote about it found that a lot of the comments he received were from teenagers seeking the blue whale game! Needless to say, regardless of whether the game exists, it is providing a source of curiosity and potentially interesting teenagers with suicidal tendencies. He provided a button with his story that said "Start game" and over 9% of people who read his article and its warnings clicked the button anyway. The button led to a page where people were asked why they wanted to play the game and answers ranged from the curious to those really wanting to end their lives.

Sociopaths may see opportunity in the teenagers being interested and seek to harm them by engaging them in what they are seeking and expect. An urban myth that makes suicide sound like some kind of rite of passage may encourage vulnerable minds to lose objectivity and choose self-harm.

Malicious online entities could engage people in the game and provide people with links that infected their computers with malware. After all, a person looking to find a person encouraging them to commit suicide is hardly going to expect a hacker.

All the usual cautions about strangers on the internet apply.

What is the good news?

Is there a good news about the blue whale game? Well, yes. Given that the blue whale game involves tasks to be completed over 50 days, tasks that involve fairly conspicuous behavior, like going to the tops of building and standing on the edge, standing on bridges, cutting their arms, cutting designs onto their limbs - this behavior is very easy to notice and trigger concern. And the good news is that it must go on for almost two months before the suicide. I think it beats a teenager committing suicide on a whim and gives people a chance to notice the problem and gives them a chance to change their minds. 49 days of bizarre behavior has a much better chance of someone intervening than a teenager leaving for college and stepping in front of a train. There is no need for paranoia. It isn't true, and even if it were, it has a better chance of someone noticing it and putting a stop to it than an "unorganized" suicide, so to say.

How dangerous is the blue whale game?

This is tough to say. Given that there is no evidence the game exists, there is no "threat score" one can attach to it. I saw several videos said to be music shared as a part of the challenge and I don't feel suicidal at all. And I am someone who has no problems with suicide and have even been suicidal myself in the past. So if there were some mystical power that would make a viewer want to kill themselves, or at least depressed, I should feel something. Nope. Zero wish to kill me. Anyone who watched and did feel depressed probably was reacting to the title saying that it would make them feel depressed or something. There are no supernatural powers in the video.

That said, obviously, self harm is dangerous and suicide is fatal. So I guess, even if the game doesn't exist if people find the idea appealing and try to copy it, it is obviously dangerous. I imagine too many horror movies in the middle of the night on a sleep deprived brain would fry anyone's sense of well being. Nothing catching up on sleep won't fix, I imagine.

The real danger of such secret, coercive interactions would likely to be predatory behavior with teenagers. Online sexual predators, risk of malicious code being downloaded to computers, personal information breached or willingly given that can make someone vulnerable to blackmail... the sane thing to do here is to keep your computer's security updated and not engage in intimate conversations with strangers.

Some last words about this blue whale suicide game thing - try the pink whale challenge instead

The reporter who did that story on the blue whale game and found the teenagers interested created an alternative pink whale challenge. Not going to link to it. If you really landed here looking for something, it will satisfy your need to search for it and find it and you can play it.

With or without the blue whale game, teenage depression and suicides are growing. There is a need to be supportive of vulnerable people and to provide a compassionate listening ear. If you find anyone around you being unusually depressed, engaging in self-harm, withdrawing from the world, do take a moment to check on them, and if necessary, speak with their friends and/or families and see that they receive any attention needed.

If you find yourself interested in suicide, seek help. More importantly, seek information. When emotions are low, it is harder to be convinced that things aren't as bad as we perceive them. Hard facts devoid of positive or negative emotion can serve as an anchor for sanity and allow you to gain a sense of perspective. Contact suicide helplines (search for them). Talk about it with friends you trust to listen to you. Make an abrupt change in life. Quit an environment making you unhappy, try something altogether different. It is a sort of metaphorical rebirth, you know? The giving up of an old unsatisfying life and the trying out of something that appeals more. I have done that often in life. Change careers, live in a different place, break up or fall in love, whatever.

Remember, thoughts of death may be common, acting on it is not. There is no need to fear. It is better to empower yourself with information and pragmatic action. If you are happy, if you care for yourself and seek help when you feel low, you aren't going to want to die, and no game can make you want to do it. That is just the internet being what it is.

Update: After publishing this post, it has come to my attention that the one Mumbai boy's suicide is behind this speculation of the Blue Whale challenge. This is in spite of the police not finding any history of altered behavior in the boy or signs of self mutilation - both of which would have been present if this were a case of the alleged "Blue whale challenge". Regardless, an incredibly uncritical media has widely reported the death as a potential Blue Whale game suicide, Devendra Fadnavis has apparently promised an inquiry saying that if it is an online game, it can easily be blocked (compounding gullibility with rank ignorance of the internet). And to top everything, this was brought up in the Parliament and the government may probably be preparing to issue some kind of a warning on the issue. While they are at it, they should also warn people against trusting Lord Voldemort. The complete gullibility of the media and the state and center governments is staggering. This is what you get by promoting stupidification and superstition. Critical thinking goes for a toss.

 

blue whale game news
How a suicide got attributed to the fictional blue whale game and swept through media, got concerned Chief Minister to promise action and got taken seriously in Rajya Sabha

Viral trends of this sort spread with panic and reach the fertile ground of the minds of those discontented with life who find them appealing. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the media and the Parliament ought to show restraint instead of introducing Indian youth to such ideas made all the more melodramatic for the attention they get. There are countless suicides in India on a daily basis. While this one is very sad as well, there is no need to go overboard about it and jump to conclusions that have no evidence in the reported facts of the case.

Update 2: More info on Snopes

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Suicide is a taboo subject for conversation. Particularly what makes a person want to commit suicide or what to say in the face of their pain.

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”
― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Suicide is a subject almost everyone has thought of at some point or the other. Almost everyone has wondered what it would be like to end our own life or how it could be done without confronting the great fear - pain, suffocation or other discomforts. Yet suicide remains a taboo subject. The feelings behind suicide. What makes someone commit suicide. We can talk statistics or prevention or helplines, but in the face of actual pain that drives a person to suicide, we have no skills. There is a difference between contemplating suicide and planning to commit suicide. An important one. The first is a fairly common and natural response to unbearable negative emotions. The other is an irreversible action.

I admit I have often considered suicide. I have written about suicide before too. From a perspective of statistics, from a perspective of understanding widespread distress needing political answers, from a perspective of empathy when I read about suicide, from a perspective of failing to support and grieving when someone I know commits suicide and I have also considered suicide as an option to end my own life when I was very sad. Yet, whenever I have tweeted about the subject, I have immediately got responses that amount to stopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopSTOP! It is so immediate that it would be hilarious if the subject were not grave. I have got helpline numbers as replies, I have got advice to not let dark thoughts enter my mind.

Hello! I write and tweet and comment and contemplate issues of human rights abuse. How in the world can one do that without having any dark thoughts? If I were planning to commit suicide, why would I be tweeting instead of finding myself a rope? I understand that it can sometimes be a cry for help by a distraught person, but if the rest of the words are perfectly normal, where is the harm in reading to find out what is being said?

Because here is the thing. Even if a person were tweeting about suicide publicly as a last ditch call for attention and help, the last thing they'd need is to be told to shut up or a sea of platitudes. What they would be needing is an empathetic listener who cares.

What exactly is this fear of talking about suicides?

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I admit I have spent a great deal of time contemplating committing suicide over the years. As in killing myself. I have been in unhappy relationships involving heartbreak, I've been in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic, I've been a broke single mother of a disabled child. Despair and depression are no strangers. And yet I am here, typing this post.

I have actually found thinking about suicide in great detail helpful. Instead of fearing the pain of death (and thus possibly taking a rash step "while I have the courage" maybe after a glass or two of vodka), I've gone and researched methods of suicide. What would cause the least pain? What are the consequences of failure? What is the best method so that it causes least pain and least risk of failing and living with permanent damage? And anyone who knows me knows that when I say research, I mean obsessive information finding till I am convinced I know the subject in and out without actual experience. Enough to make a very well considered decision. On and off, when I'm in utter despair, I've gone and rechecked all the information. And yet here I am, typing all this.

Is this a guarantee I will never commit suicide? No. But it pretty much guarantees that I have given it thorough thought and not found it a better tradeoff for now. It guarantees that if I do it, it will not be a thoughtless impulse, but a decision I take about my life after considering all options I have.

So how has contemplating suicide helped me?

By giving me an option. By giving me an exit from the pain. By giving me the concrete information that if all this gets unbearable, I still have the option to exit. In the process, a miracle happens. I am no longer cornered by my despair. I always have the cheat route out. And because I know that, I am never out of options. I lose the fear of making attempts to change my circumstances that could fail.  Just allowing myself to spend time thinking about ending myself is a catharsis. If no one else, at least I am acknowledging how bad things are. I am listening to myself. It helps me feel heard. It gives me a vocabulary for describing my situation when asking for help. No, I don't mean "I am suicidal, help me or else." I mean "This, this and this is the reason for my despair. I am not able to see functional ways out. I need help." - because hello, I've gone through all the reasons in my contemplation and have them now sorted out in my head.

And sometimes, in a very cynical way, the contemplations have saved me. If I don't care whether I live or die, why not try this one last thing or the other? If I hit a dead end, I can always die.

“Killing myself was a matter of such indifference to me that I felt like waiting for a moment when it would make some difference.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

Here is an example how. When I was younger, my emotions were more volatile. Taking what I felt seriously and giving it serious thought helped me see things more clearly and invariably, I ended up thinking that if there was any hope, I could use it and if there wasn't, well, I could always die. But the well thought out option being there and not at any threat of being taken off the table gave me the confidence to know I could opt for it any time and there was no need to do it right now. I could afford to wait and see. I am truly grateful no one immediately tried to stop me at such times, or I'd have been tempted to use the opportunity before someone blocked it from me.

Now I am older. I have a young disabled child. Whoever knows me knows that I'd chew my arm off before I allowed anything to harm him. Well, losing a mom would definitely harm him. So suicide is totally not an option any more. At least while he is alive. He needs me. Period. Again, if I hadn't thought this through, I could have been at risk of giving up without considering the impact.

In some of my more selfish and melodramatic ways, I've even thought "What will be, will be" If I am not there, someone or the other will care for my son, though I can't imagine who, right now. But then, in such a melodramatic moment, the desire is also to leave a lasting mark on the world when I die. And oops, it is not "orphaned kid in moment of despair". I'd like to be remembered for something better, thank you very much.

Whatever it is. Others may have their own reasoning. Still others may come to a well considered decision that suicide is actually a good choice for them, When my father was dying of Parkinson's, he had the option of looking forward to an indeterminate bed ridden existence with little control over his body, being bored out of his wits and too exhausted to do anything about it but to wait to die. He begged me to kill him almost every week. It is illegal and I have two more dependents, or I would definitely have arranged for him to be freed as per his will if it were legal. Others do it out of poverty. Starvation. When the alternative is to live in debt and watch your family suffer with no hope of ever providing for them in sight, it can be a brutal life to look forward to, and death may simply be a matter of running out of the ability to fight.

“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank -- but that's not the same thing.”
― Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories

Whatever it is, however it plays out, a suicide is not about dying or exiting the world, it is about escaping unbearable torment. A person who feels unheard and uncared for, is unlikely to respond to a panicked flood of platitudes that s/he has heard a hundred times that drowns their voice all over again, even in the contemplation of death.

How agonized we are by how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live. ~ P. Sainath

My suggestion is that we all examine what this fear is that stops us from listening on hearing that word. Because the lives of many around us could depend on how we respond to their pain. If someone has made a well considered decision to die, there isn't much we can do about it, but if someone is screaming into a void of despair, perhaps us offering a listening ear will give them the space to be heard, and in the process get a clearer view of their situation.

What do you think?