Cause of Death 

What the New York Times gets wrong about suicide.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

The New York Times has published an affecting profile of a young woman who appeared to lead a charmed life, until she became determined to kill herself. Soon after Kathryn DeWitt enrolled in her dream school, the University of Pennsylvania, in 2014, she became depressed, started engaging in self-harm, and prepared a stack of goodbye notes to friends and family. Six Penn students have taken their own lives since then; DeWitt isn’t one of them. Now, she’s spoken out in the Times about how she became gripped by an obsession with suicide—and how she eventually escaped it.

The factors DeWitt says pulled her toward suicidal thoughts were highly personal: She glanced at a classmate’s phone and saw he’d typed a cruel comment about her to a friend; she became devastated by a poor grade on a math midterm; she felt shame at her growing attraction to women, which her Christian upbringing had framed as a sin. And her path toward recovery was sparked by a close connection, too: When DeWitt’s freshman roommate noticed some troubling behavior, she spoke with DeWitt about it, then informed a resident adviser, who told a dean, who connected DeWitt with a counselor, who urged DeWitt to report to a hospital. She did, and after a few months of treatment, she’s back at Penn and involved with a school group that works on campus mental health issues.

So it’s jarring when reporter Julie Scelfo widens the story’s lens to student suicides across America, and finds a cruder explanation for their cause: Social media. Scelfo notes that “the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased modestly but steadily” in recent years, from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2007 to 11.1 in 2013. Also rising: Use of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. DeWitt compared herself unfavorably to the social media selfies that showed other students “having more fun, making more friends and going to better parties,” Scelfo writes. Though human beings have always attempted to “determine our worth based on how we stack up against others,” now, “in the era of social media, such comparisons take place on a screen with carefully curated depictions that don’t provide the full picture. Mobile devices escalate the comparisons from occasional to nearly constant.” At elite colleges like Penn, where students are expected to mask their troubles with an unflappable “Penn face,” Scelfo writes, the picture can look particularly skewed. Cornell University’s director of counseling and psychological services, Gregory Eells, tells Scelfo that “social media is a huge contributor to the misperception among students that peers aren’t also struggling.”

This misperception, it’s implied, is a bit of a girl thing. Instagram is more popular among women than men, and the three students the Times names as having contemplated or completed suicide in college are all women. One is Madison Holleran, a Penn freshman whose January 2014 suicide is framed in the Times as “the ultimate contrast between a shiny Instagram feed and interior darkness.” The Times sees Holleran as a “popular, attractive and talented” girl who was always “smiling, dappled in sunshine or kicking back at a party” on social media. But privately “Madison judged her social life as inferior to what she saw in the online posts of her high school friends,” Scelfo says.

I suspect something else is going on here. From Reviving Ophelia to Madison Holleran, the media is enamored with the image of the golden girl who harbors dark thoughts. Publishers like to illustrate tragic stories with Instagram photos of pretty girls. But that doesn’t mean that those images are actually relevant to the reasons young people take their own lives. In reality, the vast majority of young people who die by suicide are men. Perhaps more importantly, young Americans who don’t go to college are twice as likely to die by suicide as those who do. Working-class young people use social media at similar rates to kids who go to college. But something tells me that if the Times paged through their feeds, it would have a hard time making the argument that filtered images of their friends’ “perfect” lives drove them to suicide.

The Times piece suggests that more young people are dying of suicide because more of them want to kill themselves because Instagram. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proposes an alternate explanation for a recent uptick in the suicide rate among young people, and women in particular: It’s not that more of them are motivated to die, but that more of them are using suicide methods that are more likely to kill them on the first attempt. Between 1994 and 2012, the rate of girls and women younger than 24 who killed themselves by suffocation increased almost 7 percent per year, while rates of suicide by poisoning decreased slightly. CDC researchers also registered a slight increase in suicides by firearm among both men and women since 2007. Suffocation and shootings are highly lethal; poisoning is not. According to the CDC, these “trends are concerning” because they mean more suicide attempts actually end in death.

One aspect of DeWitt’s freshman year left under-examined in this Times story about suicide is DeWitt’s mental health irrespective of her relationship to her cellphone. In a blog post on Pennsive, a Tumblr dedicated to mental health at Penn, DeWitt writes of how she retreated from her social life (“hey isn’t that a symptom of depression?”), stopped eating (“what do you know, that’s a symptom also!”), and missed class to stay in bed all day (“symptom alert!”). There’s only so much we can learn from the suicide notes and digital trails left behind by people living under the irrational influences of a mental illness. Young men and women suffering from depression don’t need to get off Instagram. They need professional health care. That goes for Ivy Leaguers like DeWitt, but also all the young people who do not have a college roommate, a resident adviser, a dean, and a counselor to help them find it.