“Want to die together?”
Hu Jianguo read this message while reviewing his son’s old conversations on a popular Chinese online chat tool.
Hu’s son had said yes, starting a one-way journey into the dark corners of the internet.
In May, after two years of planning and days of conversations in the online group, the 21-year-old rode a train more than 1,000km (620 miles) from his hometown in Guan county, in northern China’s Hebei province, to the central city of Wuhan, where two strangers were waiting for him.
Together, as meticulously planned on a private chat group, the three of them took their own lives, leaving a note that offered no answers.
After their deaths, Hu logged into his son’s social media account, to try to get inside his head. There, Hu discovered a community of young people planning to take their own lives together.
And despite it being too late for his son, the mourning father embarked on a mission to help others.
When Hu first logged on and read his son’s online suicide group chat, he found his son was revered for completing his suicide. He was horrified.
“There’s such a thing as a suicide group? Can you imagine?” he said.
Hu then revealed his identity and tried to talk members of the group out of suicide, but they responded with fierce opposition, telling Hu to leave them alone, that they wanted only to die.
There were 475 members in the group when Hu joined, mostly in their teens and twenties.
Hu reached out to about 50 of them one by one, trying to find out what their troubles were. Their messages flooded non-stop into Hu’s phone, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning.
“They are usually quiet in real life, don’t communicate much with others. But inside the group, they were quite active,” Hu told the South China Morning Post.
They mostly discussed ways to die, with their own in-group jargon and glorified code names for suicide methods that served to embolden them and normalise their plans, such as “swinging”, “diving” or “barbecue”.
There were also live streams of suicide. Hu stumbled upon one not long after he had joined the group. He remembers the horror: a young man with a blank face broadcasting his attempt at death in a hotel, while other members in the group cheered him on, telling him to be careful and not be found out.
Hu called the police, and the young man was discovered and stopped by hotel staff.
Going by the name “Muran”, the man contacted Hu afterwards. Muran knew Hu was helping people, and told Hu his troubles: he was jobless, had bad health and did not have the courage to live on.
Hu sent him 50 yuan (US$7.25) to buy some water, and 88 yuan a second time. Muran was grateful.
“I want to be your son,” he told Hu. “I’ll support you in your old age.”
Hu told Muran to get a job, think about his own parents, not to do anything foolish again.
Others, too, shared their struggles with Hu. One said he had lost money in investments. Two young women said they were injured on their way to work and their companies would not cover their medical bills. Most said they felt life had no meaning.
According to the World Health Organisation, in 2016, China’s suicide rate was eight per 100,000 people, which, listed most to least, placed it 103 out of 183 countries. The data showed a decreasing rate in recent years.
Qin Ruomeng, a doctor in Nanjing, east China’s Jiangsu province, told the Post that suicide prevention was complicated and should be done by professionals, because amateurs might make mistakes that pushed victims further down the path, such as blaming them.
“The first step should be to listen and make clear what psychological issues they may have – why are they joining such groups,” she said.
In a wider effort to prevent suicide, Chinese authorities as well as medical organisations have been trying to reach out to distressed people. In 2008, the Ministry of Health required all cities to gradually set up mental health hotlines.
In February, Beijing researchers started using AI technology to prevent suicides on Chinese social media, identifying users who expressed suicidal thoughts, and messaging them with a hotline number and online tools to get professional help.
Some past online suicide groups have also been shut down. When the Post searched for groups with suicide-related keywords on a popular online platform, no results were found.
“Random” (a pseudonym) had been watching Hu ever since he logged in. When the 20-year-old man from east China’s Jiangxi province first joined the suicide chat group in May, he was deep in debt, having lost more than 1 million yuan gambling online.
Random had watched members talk for a few days, and even saved a few screenshots of Hu’s son discussing different suicide methods, thinking he may be able to use the knowledge in future.
Abruptly, Hu’s son had stopped talking in the group. After a couple days, Random read in the news that the young man and two others had killed themselves. It was a wake-up call.
“People were so vulnerable, they just left like that, without a sound,” he said.
Random decided he should abandon all suicidal thoughts. Money could be earned again, he said, but when one died, there was nothing left.
Random approached Hu. “In my imagination, if a father lost his son, he’d be devastated, spiritless, yet you have this father who’s actively talking to others, telling them ‘don’t die’,” he said. “I thought it was strange.”
They teamed up, and started sending each other information they could find online of who was likely to be at risk of committing suicide, and where and when. The number of threats was overwhelming, and Hu created a social media group of more than 30 friends to respond to the messages. They often needed to be familiar with an area to work out from online hints the locations of the people at risk.
Like Hu, Random has talked extensively one-on-one to people in the suicide group, using his own experience to convince them there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome.
“They need someone to truly care about them and chat with them,” he said. “When I talk to them, most tell me what they are going through. It seems like nobody ever listened to them.”
The efforts of Hu and Random have led directly to the prevention of more than 10 deaths. Some were stopped by police, but others decided for themselves to change their path.
Among this latter group was “Former”, a young man who had agreed to commit suicide with Hu’s son, but decided at the last minute not to join the other three.
When Hu first approached Former, he was hostile. He thought Hu wanted to sue him for his son’s death.
When Hu had asked why Former did not report his son’s death pact to the police, Former argued that he did not know the son’s phone number.
“Former must have been under stress too,” Hu said.
Former told the Post he had severe depression and had been treated in a mental hospital for three years. After choosing to live, Former had also started trying to help people in the suicide group, talking to individuals.
But he did not wish to dwell too much on the past.
Hu said his efforts in helping suicidal people online were coming to an end. Talking to people every day was mentally exhausting and he could not move on.
Even though his endeavours have done some good, Hu said it was difficult for a volunteer and amateur “suicide watch” group to solve such problems.
“There are so many people, so many issues,” he said. “The key is their families should pay attention.”
Hu’s wife pushed him to step back from the group. “You’ve helped them plenty,” she told him. “Think about your own parents, your younger son.”
On Tuesday, Hu sent his final message to the forum, bidding everyone farewell. But the next day, he found out a woman he had talked to online had killed herself. He felt guilty for not following through on what he started.
He wondered what more he could do for these young people, just as he wonders what he might have done for his own son. It has been only months since his son’s death, and he thinks: “What if?”
Hu has thought about his son’s failed start-up online shop. He was going to give him more money to try again, but he never got the chance. He wondered whether the business failure put stress on his son.
Some of the young people from the group have kept in touch. Hu recently heard that Former had found a job as a waiter and stopped all thoughts of suicide. Hu felt relief, but hearing from Former also reminded him of his own son.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Hu said. “Happiness as well as pain.”
Random has also left the chat group. His family enlisted him in the army and he is leaving soon to have his entrance health examinations. He keeps some contacts from the group that he checks from time to time, but the news is not always good.
Hu, meanwhile, has posted online some of the conversations he had with young people who told him they had given up on suicide, for everyone to see.
“I’m not saving you,” he said. “I’m redeeming my own soul.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Centre can be reached on +86 10 82951332. For Hong Kong, dial +852 28 960 000 for The Samaritans or +852 23 820 000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.
This article Online ‘suicide groups’: how a grieving father retraced his son’s footsteps to save others first appeared on South China Morning Post