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Demosthenes's avatar

To what extent can someone be blamed for someone else's suicide?

Asked by Demosthenes (12599points) April 24th, 2021
14 responses
“Great Question” (2points)

In the absence of say, directly encouraging it (which has happened in a few high profile cases).

I recently read a disturbing story in the New Yorker about a series of suicides that occurred in a college town in Missouri. All the suicides were connected to a particular fraternity and a single individual. That individual did seem to exhibit some odd behavior and seemed drawn to people with emotional problems, but there is no hard evidence that he encouraged anyone’s suicide. “Suicide clusters” are known to occur. One suicide can set off a ripple effect.

It sometimes to me like in the aftermath of a suicide, people around them are in need of someone to blame but that someone isn’t always there. When can someone be at fault for someone’s suicide and when can’t they?

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elbanditoroso's avatar

Coercion and bullying are the two main sources of third-party driven suicide – they can be related. Ultimately, though, the suicidee makes the decision based on his/her own feelings.

I don’t know anything about the college in Missouri, but I have read that there are frequently ‘copycat’ suicides in a small environment. Unless there’s pretty good evidence of bullying, it’s hard to assign ‘blame’ – although you can’t stop people from making assumptions and drawing conclusions for themselves.

Smashley's avatar

This month, two teens committed suicide in my area after becoming victims of sexting blackmail scams. I think there should be a legal construct better addressing this kind of harm, especially when children are targeted.

seawulf575's avatar

When someone commits suicide, it is because their mental condition is one of despair. Despair usually comes from long term issues and not one or two events…unless they are dreadful enough. But even then, think about it. In the case @Smashley related, sexting was done and then used as some sort of blackmail. But the person that committed suicide made a whole lot of bad decisions that showed other destructive tendencies. If the person was married, they were obviously sexting with someone that wasn’t their spouse. That is always a challenge to a marriage. But if the threat of releasing this sexting to the spouse was enough to push the person over the edge to suicide, that means there were a whole lot of other things wrong in the marriage, as well as many, many things wrong in the person’s life. Pushing the marriage over the edge is usually not enough to make someone take their own life.
So while we might feel that bullying or threats were the one thing, it is almost never the case. It is usually just the last straw. And typically that implies the suicidee was at that point and something would have eventually tripped that trigger.

Smashley's avatar

@seawulf575 – both the dead in the cases I mentioned were children. They may have made bad decisions, but they were also victimized. The scammers threatened to, and did, send compromising pictures of their victims to their friends, and family. Kids are particularly vulnerable to suicide, and blaming them for ending their lives is classic victim blaming.

I disagree with the logic that because someone was more likely to kill themselves, there should be no culpabiliy for their abuser. You wouldn’t protect a person who pushed old people off their walkers, just because those old people were much too vulnerable. You are blaming the victim for being easier to victimize. The intent may not have been to affect suicide, but their criminal actions evince a depraved mind, and reckless disregard for safety.

And suicide happens for many reasons. Despair is usually involved, but a hormonal teen, or anyone a bit unstable, having a very bad day, with access to a gun, can go from upset to dead in a matter of seconds. Guns kill faster than the speed of thought.

seawulf575's avatar

@Smashley I don’t suggest that bullying or abuse is okay. And yes, they should be punished. but suicide goes deeper than one event. That’s my point.
And I’m not blaming the victim for being easy to victimize. That is irrelevant as well. The question was can someone be blamed for someone else’s suicide. That is what I’m addressing.
So let’s say you look at the case with the kids. Was that the very first thing that went bad in their lives? I’m guessing not. Most likely there were numerous things that made their psyche warped, their self-esteem weak. It is the combination of these things that molded those children into a being that sees suicide as a potential way out of life and all their problems. The last straw, while not acceptable in my book, did not take that child from normal, happy, healthy child to suicide in one step.
So if you are looking to blame someone for a suicide, you need to go back to the beginning. What has that person been subjected to throughout their lives? How did the person cope with the various adversities they encountered? What sort of support did they have along the way? At every step in that person’s life, there were things that helped mold that person into a suicide waiting to happen.
I have some experience with suicide. My father committed suicide. He had mental issues. His career tanked ages before. He fell into being almost destitute. He fought off cancer several times. He had other health issues. You might say I caused his suicide because I was trying to get him back to a level footing. I suggested that he declare bankruptcy and then move in with me or into an assisted living home. Both of those things, I know, attacked his self-esteem. He didn’t want to do either, even though he needed to. But by suggesting them, I may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Should I be held criminally accountable? For trying to help?
When someone considers suicide, they are not healthy, psychologically. It is never clear what their triggers are. Some things are obvious…the bullying you referenced for instance. But if that was the first blow to a persons otherwise healthy ego, do you believe that would be enough to push them over the edge?

Smashley's avatar

@seawulf575 The legal doctrine I’d point to is the eggshell rule. If you commit an assault on a person, and due to their frailty they experience harm much greater than you had anticipated, you are still responsible for the actual damage, not just the damage you intended to inflict in your criminal assault. Words like “reckless disregard” and “malice aforethought” come to mind. We understand this to be true for physical criminal atttacks, so why not psychological ones?

I’m devastated to hear about your situation with your father. I can image how much all that must stay with you, and I hope you can see the difference in your actions and those of the extortionists who targeted these children. You had no malice, and your intentions were to help. You were not committing a criminal act against him, and you had no reasonble expectation that you were causing him harm.

crazyguy's avatar

One of the high profile cases you mentioned probably is the guy who was urged to do something by a girl. However, the girl, in my opinion, was just urging him to finally do something he had threatened to do on many occasions before. She is culpable, I think. But I think ultimately the fault lies in the person contemplating the act in the first place. Even if that person would have been incapable of carrying out the act without some egging on.

So, in my opinion, the person encouraging a suicide has limited culpability. There are few examples as clear as the girl practically killing the guy!

seawulf575's avatar

@Smashley The problem with your analogy (the legal doctrine you cite) and this question is one of actual impact. If I assault someone, I have physically attacked them, beat them, etc. And any damage I inflict may end up causing that person’s death. That is a very clean cut tie to me.
What I am talking about with the suicide is that you don’t always know what might trip a person off. Let’s say I run into someone in a grocery store and he is a complete jackass. Suppose I say something like “what a douchebag!” and that is the tipping point. He is so unhinged that simple statement send him over the edge and he goes off and kills himself. The point is that mental health is a very nebulous thing.
If I were to do something like continually abuse my wife and tell her to kill herself and this goes on for months non-stop and she finally does, we are back to me taking a very clear-cut effort to do damage and get her to kill herself. In something like that there is intent for me to get her to commit suicide so I might be held accountable, if it were ever proven. But if you play a practical joke on someone or call someone a name or any of the other thousands of things that go on in this country every hour of the day and that ends up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back, that gets back to the suicidee being unstable to start with.

Smashley's avatar

@seawulf575 – Being called a douchebag is not a criminal assault. An adult, targeting a child, convincing them to produce child pornography, and transmit it to them, blackmailing them, then sending their photos to their social media contacts, is a violation of many criminal statutes, and entire thing is an orchastrated physchological attack. These scammers know the distress their actions cause. In fact, they bank on it.

You keep trying to pull this back to the realm of taunting and jokes: I am absoluely not, and never was, talking about such things. The OP wants to know if you can ever fairly blame someone for another’s suicide; you mentioned that in cases of chronic abuse a person could reasonably be held responsible for another’s suicide. I simply add that acute abuse can also cause suicide.

When a drunk driver kills someone, we treat that driver as having caused the death, due to their reckless disregard for the safety of others, evidenced by their dangerous actions. They had no intent to kill, so isn’t murder, but they did intend to act in reckless disregard of others, and the direct result was death. Manslaughter, probably. These scammers use extortion as a tool of trade, and will gladly target chidren. Sometimes they get a hit and make some money, sometimes the kid freaks out and calls the cops or kills himself first. Oh well, next victim!

seawulf575's avatar

@Smashley I get that you are passionate about this particular case. And as I have said, the people involved are assholes. As you have said, they have already broken many laws doing what they are doing. I get it. But my point is not whether or not these folks are assholes. I keep taking the conversation to taunting and practical jokes to make a point…one which you are either unwilling or unable to comprehend. Taunting and practical jokes may be small potatoes to you. Because of your disdain for me bringing them up I will assume they are. But to someone that is mentally unstable, they might see it as just too much. THAT is my point. Even simple things that really aren’t dreadful can seem that way to someone that is already on the edge.
The original question was asking when someone could or couldn’t be responsible for someone else’s suicide. Let me ask you this…if you snapped at some neighborhood kid for something he was doing and he then went off and killed himself, how would you feel? Would you be criminally liable? Probably not. But would you feel like a complete shit-heel for your harsh language? Possibly. Because you had no way to know that kid’s mental state when you said it. It could be construed that you “caused” his suicide. You were the last one to say something to him and it was in anger. But can you really say you are responsible for that kid’s mental state and all the things that led up to him crossing paths with you?
Do you see what I am saying? There are some suicides you can track back to a specific causal person and others you honestly cannot.
But you keep bringing up analogies that aren’t always applicable to people that may or may not cause a suicide. People that drink and drive are breaking a law. People that assault other are breaking a law. The assholes targeting children are likely breaking laws. But not everyone that could be “the last straw” is breaking laws.

Smashley's avatar

@seawulf575 Sure, I agree that not everything that could be someone’s last straw is breaking a law. And I wouldn’t pursue criminal responsibility unless it was a case of a criminal attack. This has been my entire point since the beginning.

Still in this analogy, you might say that a person “caused” another’s death because they tapped them on the shoulder to return their wallet, and startled them into oncoming traffic. Just like the taunting, there can be no criminal responsibility, even if the causal link between the tap and the death is pretty well established. No intent, no recklessness or malice, no crime.

Again, because I must apparently restate: I’ve only been interested, since the begininning of this conversation, in discussing the merits of blaming perpetrators of severe psychological attacks when their actions directly precede a suicide.

I never argued that people taunting or making jokes should be held responsible, even if the result of their actions is death. I only argued that those who commit criminal attacks should be held responsible, even if the causal link is harder to establish than a physical attack. You argued that the causality between the two events could never be well established, and I argued that sometimes it can, and I think you’ve actually agreed, you even added your own example: when long term abuse causes suicide. We agree that there are suicides that you can blame others for, and ones you cannot. So… I think we’re done here.

seawulf575's avatar

@Smashley And we are almost on point with each other. Except for one point: taunting or practical jokes CAN be malicious. They CAN be hurtful. But normal, healthy, psyches can deal with them in a sane rational manner…not jumping into suicide over the stress they caused. And while I have agreed several times that there are issues with the cases you mentioned, these things are all related. Someone took an action that resulted in someone else’s death. Even in the cases you mentioned, the goal was not to have the person kill themselves. But the person was so stressed out and despairing that they deemed suicide the only way to make it end.
So where do we draw the line? When do teasing and taunting and practical jokes suddenly become criminally liable of future actions?

Smashley's avatar

@seawulf575 – the most workable framework I can think of would be when the teasing and jokes cross over into illegal activities, and a clear line can be drawn from criminal attack to the suicide, like the two local examples I cited.

crazyguy's avatar

@Smashley @seawulf575 I just returned from a FUN golf match. It was my partner and I against a pair from a different country club. We play two individual matches, and one team match. What made the day FUN was the constant teasing and good-natured insulting that is part of trash talk during a golf match. Could some of the comments be considered hurtful? You bet! Before I start on my trash talk I get a lay of the land, which is to say I gently feel out my opponents and partner. Once I am past that point, it is pretty much open season.

If somebody were tp take the comments to heart, they could hurt a lot. I do not know if any of my comments could cause somebody to take his/her life; but, if they did, I might be upset for a minute or two or longer. BUT I will not change my ways!

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