Motion Could Criminalize Online Suicide Counseling

November 26, 2009 Updated: September 29, 2015

A motion in response to the death of Nadia Kajouji, an 18-year-old Carleton university student who committed suicide by jumping into Ottawa’s Rideau River in March 2008, has received unanimous support in the House of Commons.

Kajouji, who was deeply depressed, was encouraged to take her own life by a male Internet predator who posed as a young woman in an online suicide chat room.

Introduced by Conservative MP Harold Albrecht, M-388 could make it a criminal offence to counsel people over the Internet to commit suicide. On its second reading last Wednesday, the motion passed without opposition.

“Two hundred and thirty MPs on all sides of the house coming together unanimously in voting for a private members motion is almost unprecedented, and surely that speaks louder than words,” says Rory Butler, founder and CEO of Your Life Counts, a suicide-prevention organization.

With Canada being one of just two G8 countries without a suicide prevention strategy, Butler says the issue of suicide “does not have the political recognition that it needs” and that Albrecht’s bill is “a wonderful step forward” in bringing the issue to the forefront of the political debate.

He says vulnerable young people, many of whom turn to the Internet for help, risk running into predators who convince them to take their own life.

“Unfortunately, they can connect with the likes of these people who speak in honeyed tones and empathize and encourage and cajole, but as we saw in the case of Nadia Kajouji the end result was her tragic loss to suicide.”

William Melchert-Dinkel, 47, a Minnesota-based nurse posing as a woman named Cami, allegedly coaxed Kajouji to hang herself in front of a webcam so he could watch. But in order to make her suicide look like a skating accident, Kajouji chose drowning instead.

The transcripts of Kajouji's online chats show discussions between the two about the most effective way to commit suicide. Melchert-Dinkel advised her to get a rope at Home Depot and he would show her how to hang herself “so it will be less painful.”

It has since emerged that Melchert-Dinkel, using several pseudonyms including Cami, habituates websites, chat rooms, and newsgroups all dedicated to suicide where he makes fake suicide pacts and encourages severely depressed people to take their own life.

The married father of two has been linked to a number of other suicides in several countries. According to news reports, Melchert-Dinkel checked himself into a hospital soon after Kajouji’s death claiming he has an addiction to online suicide chat rooms.

Subsequently, authorities with the Minnesota Board of Nursing revoked his status as a licensed practical nurse. However, although both the Ottawa and Minnesota police are conducting investigations, it is unclear whether charges will be laid.

While counseling people to commit suicide is already against the law, M-388 asks the government to ensure that it is a Criminal Code offence “regardless of the means used to counsel or aid or abet including via telecommunications, the Internet, or a computer system.”

Kajouji’s brother Marc says that although before her death his sister was taking anti-depressant medication whose side effects can lead to suicide, he believes she would be alive today if she hadn’t been aided and abetted by Melchert-Dinkel.

He says there exists a “very perverse subculture” of pushing suicide on the Internet and believes the government should monitor suicide sites similar to the way it monitors using the Internet to distribute bomb-making instructions.

“Websites on how to make cocaine or how to kill yourself—those things are illegal and they should be strictly monitored in my opinion. The problem with the Internet is there are a lot of people who hide behind the freedom of speech.”

Encouraging people to commit suicide over the Internet is considered a new—and growing—species of crime.

In an article on the influence of the Internet on suicidal behaviour published in the April 2008 issue of the British Medical Journal, an Internet search by medical researchers found 45 sites that encouraged, promoted, or facilitated suicide.

Forty three sites contained personal or other accounts of suicide methods, providing information and discussing pros and cons but without direct encouragement, and two sites portrayed suicide or self harm in “fashionable terms.” They also found 12 chat rooms or discussion boards that talked about methods of suicide.

Although traditionally, suicide pacts have been made between people who know each other, suicide sites are claimed to facilitate suicide pacts among strangers—most often young people—who meet and then plan their suicide through the Internet.

Butler, whose organization focuses on helping young people cope with the self destructive behaviours that can lead them to want to take their own life, says suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canada’s youth next to road traffic accidents. Among aboriginal youth, it’s six times the national average, according to Statistics Canada.

“It's a silent epidemic that continues,” he says. “It pre-dates the H1N1 hysteria of the moment. It's here, we're dealing with it every day, and we need help, we need resources. We've got to do much, much more.”