CLUTCHING a picture of her beloved son Brett, Angela Stevens recalls how he spent his last moments – hiding away with a stranger in an Airbnb, deciding to end their lives together.
The vulnerable 28-year-old, who had been diagnosed with autism, had fallen under the spell of an evil ‘pro-suicide’ forum, which horrifically enabled him to ‘buddy up’ with a young girl who travelled to the UK to kill herself with him.
A staggering 23 UK suicides in the last two years have been linked to this website, which we are choosing not to name.
A Sun investigation has discovered twisted members of the forum – which boasts 20,000 members – are trolling grieving families and flogging dark ‘memorabilia’ like mugs and T-shirts.
One mum who dared to challenge its founder was trolled and hideously told: "You didn't look after your son properly”.
“I feel so angry that this website, hiding in the plainest of sight, took my son away,” Angela, 54, says in an exclusive interview.
“It has to be closed down now before another vulnerable person dies. The people who run the site not only have blood on their hands but need to be brought to justice.
“The site is like an octopus with 1,000 tentacles. It gets into every part of your life.”
‘Hundreds’ of parents terrified as kids visit forums
In the 12 months before Covid hit, an estimated 7 per cent of children were found to have attempted suicide by the age of 17, according to a study.
Almost one in four were found to have self-harmed in the report, which was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry last year and surveyed around 19,000 British children born at the start of the millennium.
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The harrowing death tally linked to just one suicide forum – seen by The Sun – was compiled by campaigner Catherine Adenekan, whose son Joe Nihill, 23, also died just four days after using the site.
She amassed the grim toll by speaking to the families of users who expressed a wish to die on the site.
Catherine, 51, from Leeds, said: “This website and ones like it are pure evil. They warp your mind and make you think you want to end it all.
“The fact 23 people have died since 2019 in the UK alone shows you what a silent problem there is and the authorities are doing absolutely nothing about them. It sickens me.
“I miss my son every moment of every day. In his suicide note, he begged for the police to close the site so others didn’t get hurt.
"He knew they were bad news. I just wish he’d taken his own advice and not done what he did.”
One charity has told how as many as 300 parents come to them every year with concerns over their children visiting suicide forums.
While new figures reveal more than HALF of all parents worry about their kids going on these sites.
This month, the Government announced sweeping changes to the Online Safety Bill, which means that age verification is needed for sites with adult content and those with dangerous material.
But some – like the suicide forum visited by Brett and Joe – risk slipping through the net and continuing to go unregulated.
Sinister buddy system
Brett Stephens was diagnosed with autism when he was 15 and after a family crisis, he struggled to deal with life.
Angela, from Stoke-on-Trent, says: “Brett was my beautiful boy but we’d had a difficult time.
“After a family crisis, he started to go on the forum. Maybe it was because he wanted some reassurance initially, but I had no idea about it.
“Unbeknown to me, he’d been sucked in by a sub-thread on the forum which was for people looking for a partner to end their life with.”
Angela later found messages saying, “I’m scared to die alone”, but towards the end of 2019 he had befriended a 24-year-old woman from the Netherlands and talked about taking their lives together.
“He met this girl, she flew into Manchester on November 22 that year and he drove from our home in Stoke to meet her,” she says.
“They then got a train to Aberdeenshire where they rented an Airbnb cottage and spent two weeks there. We had no idea where he was or that he’d been on this forum.”
The pair both took their lives on December 4, 2019.
A chilling post on the forum was later found from Brett thanking fellow users for their advice. He posted it the day before his death.
As well as documenting in detail how they were dying, it opened with: “Thank you everyone for the kind words”.
He was then inundated with people wishing him “good luck” and “safe travel”.
“When I found out he’d died everything fell apart,” says Angela. “I had no idea he had been on these forums.
“His computer was encrypted and it was only when I read in the local press I realised it had been a double suicide.
“It was hard to understand initially. The site had sadly brainwashed him.”
It later emerged the 24-year-old girl had left her phone open and police found she had been looking at the forum.
‘Please close that website and look after mum’
Catherine’s son Joe, a former Army cadet, had had a series of setbacks in his life before his death in April 2020.
Family members had died and a volatile relationship meant that he had been struggling.
Four days before his death, he had been active on the same site Brett had been using.
The Sun has seen one of his last messages in which he was asked what he wants from his death by another user.
Joe replied: “More peacefulness, and not too much extreme pain and speed.
"To be honest I’m ready to try new things and just be at peace with myself. If that makes sense?”
Other users then offer him an array of terrifying advice.
“Joe had been a shell of himself before his death,” says Catherine.
“Events in our life had hit him hard but like others, I had no idea he was viewing such brainwashing material.”
Joe was found dead on his mother’s sofa on April 4 after taking a deadly substance prescribed on the forum.
He also left a suicide note asking authorities: “Please do your bit in closing that website for anyone else and please look after my mum and my family.”
“It broke me,” Catherine says. “Later on, I found this hideous world he’d been sucked into. It was like a cult. He was addicted, there’s no doubt about it.
“I’m addicted too. I go on it most days, not that I want to do anything stupid but I’m trying to see what other vulnerable people need help.”
Ghouls flog deadly substances for £90 and have ‘suicide language’
Our investigation found a sickening world lurking in the pages of ‘pro-suicide’ chatrooms.
We found users chillingly asking for ways to die and being supported by others.
On one site, a man calling himself a ‘former therapist’ explains someone through a step-by-step guide.
Despite caveating his 10-point advice with, “I’m not encouraging you do anything”, he still explicitly gives suggestions of what the person could do to end their life.
In another thread, a man who says he has failed twice before reveals he is “being sucked into thinking things might be ok”.
But a few posts later, a regular commenter on the forum gives him advice on how to take his own life.
I’ve had users get my number, call me up and pretend to be my son and go, ‘Hi, it’s Joe’. My heart stopped
Catherine has launched an online petition which has more than 7,000 signatures to have the forum used by Joe shut down, and she has got the backing of her local MP Richard Burgeon.
“I’ve made it my life goal to get it closed down,” she says. “They prey on the sick and vulnerable and make them think life isn’t worth living.”
In Italy, the site has been blocked and people there are banned from seeing it. The grieving mum does not understand why UK authorities have not done the same.
“It’s killing people’s kids and the UK authorities are turning their heads,” she says. “It’s a joke.
“Because I’ve campaigned against it I’ve had abuse. I’ve had users get my number, call me up and pretend to be my son and go, ‘Hi, it’s Joe’. My heart stopped.
“I’ve found out the site is now selling mugs and T-shirts with ‘It’s Over’ on them. It’s sick.
“The site seems to actively discourage people from talking people down from suicide. People are getting banned if they do that.”
You’re Not Alone
EVERY 90 minutes in the UK a life is lost to suicide.
It doesn't discriminate, touching the lives of people in every corner of society – from the homeless and unemployed to builders and doctors, reality stars and footballers.
It's the biggest killer of people under the age of 35, more deadly than cancer and car crashes.
And men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.
Yet it's rarely spoken of, a taboo that threatens to continue its deadly rampage unless we all stop and take notice, now.
That is why The Sun launched the You're Not Alone campaign.
The aim is that by sharing practical advice, raising awareness and breaking down the barriers people face when talking about their mental health, we can all do our bit to help save lives.
Let's all vow to ask for help when we need it, and listen out for others… You're Not Alone.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help dealing with mental health problems, the following organisations provide support:
- CALM, www.thecalmzone.net, 0800 585 858
- Heads Together, www.headstogether.org.uk
- Mind, www.mind.org.uk, 0300 123 3393
- Papyrus, www.papyrus-uk.org, 0800 068 41 41
- Samaritans, www.samaritans.org, 116 123
- Movember, www.uk.movember.com
- Anxiety UK www.anxietyuk.org.uk, 03444 775 774 Monday-Friday 9.30am-10pm, Saturday/Sunday 10am-8pm
In an incredible stand-off, Catherine even went toe to toe over the phone with one of the forum’s founders – one lives in the US and the other is in Uruguay.
“I told him he didn’t care about the lives of these vulnerable people on his site,” she says. “He just shrugged it off saying, ‘It’s a pro-choice site, people have a choice what they do with their lives’.
“Even though I told him he was responsible for my son and other deaths, he then suggested that we didn’t look after our children properly.
“These people should be prosecuted – instead, they are laughing at us.”
More than half of parents terrified of forums
Under UK law, aiding or counselling a person to kill themselves is punishable with up to 14 years in prison under the 1961 Suicide Act.
But nothing has been done because the site is hosted by someone outside the UK.
Ged Flynn, chief executive of the suicide prevention charity Papyrus, says: “Between 200 and 300 parents a year tell us their children have gone on to the internet to seek information on how to die. It's awful.”
Online safety charity Internet Matters told The Sun how 56 per cent of parents are concerned about their children viewing content promoting self-harm or suicide online.
The survey questioned more than 2,000 parents in the UK last year.
Chief executive Carolyn Bunting MBE says: “Self-harm is a growing issue among young people.
"We know that an increasing number of teens are able to access images and content related to suicide or self-harm online, which have a damaging impact on a child’s mental health.
“It’s important the internet industry does better, making sure they are shutting down sites and removing hashtags to prevent children from seeing this content, and that we act as a society by educating our children about the prevalence of such content, understanding why they might be drawn to it and where to go for help. This is particularly important for more vulnerable children.
“There are parental controls and filters you can put in place to prevent them accessing harmful content online but it’s worth bearing in mind that no controls are 100 per cent guaranteed, so parents need to actively engage with their child’s digital life so they can understand the role it plays, and the impact it has on their wellbeing.
“Parents should always visit their child’s GP to seek advice about these issues. At Internet Matters we offer advice on steps parents can take to protect their children online.”
A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport told The Sun: "We condemn the existence of sites like this and the harmful impact they have on people's lives.
"Online content encouraging suicide is illegal. Our new laws will force internet platforms including small websites and the search engines which list them to remove it.
"If these companies fail in their duties they will face huge fines and having their services locked. Their bosses could also be held criminally liable for failing to cooperate with the regulator Ofcom."
Anyone can contact Samaritans FREE any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email [email protected] or visit www.samaritans.org. Parents worried about their children can visit internetmatters.org.
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