YORK COUNTY, Pa. — Jackie Bieber believes her daughter Shawn had been looking for help with depression when she landed in one of the darkest places on the internet. Shawn Shatto, 25, struggled with anxiety and felt miserable at her Amazon warehouse job. She found a website about suicide.
Shortly after joining the website in 2019, Shawn took her life.
Bieber has printed out thousands of pages from the website. They show comments from members discussing suicide methods, providing directions on how to die and nudging each other along as they share plans. Bieber will never forget the feeling of seeing the website for the first time.
“It was the most horrifying thing I have ever seen in my life,” said Bieber, of Newberry Township, York County.
Shawn had sought out a therapist in February and could not get an appointment until July. In April, she found the website.
Shawn spent her final moments on the site. She told members that she wanted to die because she hated her warehouse job and members on the site reaffirmed her decision.
On May 22, 2019, she posted that she had ingested a lethal dose of poison—a method she learned about on the site. Members wished her luck. Others warned her to be quiet since her mother had been working down the hall.
It felt evil to Bieber.
“She wrote on the website that she took it and she was terrified,” Bieber said. “Those were her very last words to anybody on this earth, was ‘I’m terrified. I’m effing terrified.’”
Pennsylvania has a law against aiding or encouraging suicide, but it is vague. After reaching out to State Police and several district attorney’s offices, FOX43 Reveals could only find one record of this charge being filed in South Central Pa. in the last decade. No charges have been filed in Shawn’s death.
“Because it’s on the internet and these people are hiding, they get away with it because there’s no accountability and there needs to be,” added Bieber. “There needs to be responsibility and accountability for these actions.”
The website draws in more than a million monthly visits, according to the web analytics company SimilarWeb. After speaking with mental health experts, we decided not to name the website or the methods it discusses.
Many law enforcement officials and mental health advocates were not aware of the site until FOX43 Reveals showed them. Advocates at Mental Health America (MHA) of Lancaster County were shocked by its content and reach.
“It was disturbing to me. The site really didn’t promote any hope. It was very dark and I think heavily influential,” said Kim McDevitt, Executive Director of MHA of Lancaster County. “One thing MHA really feels strongly about is doing that early intervention and prevention work and that’s through education.”
A U.S. House committee sought hearings from search engines, web hosting companies, companies that run content delivery networks, and relevant social media platforms about reducing visibility of the website.
“It is imperative that companies take the threat of such sites seriously and take appropriate steps to mitigate harm,” members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce said in a statement.
Members of Congress also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue a case against the owners of the website and asked what steps lawmakers could take to allow for prosecution.
“I think that someone who’s in that state of mind of they want to take their life and they’re that fragile, and then you’re being reinforced on a site like this site, I think it just feeds into what their belief is and it’s what you listen to,” McDevitt said. “Although they’re not ultimately the cause, I think they have a responsibility in the outcome.”
Mental health advocates have different perspectives about whether members on the site are responsible for the suicide deaths of people like Shawn.
Kay Bela, suicide prevention coordinator for MHA of Lancaster County, is familiar with the feeling of wanting to die. She had a suicide attempt several years ago.
She found a renewed hope for life after meeting her husband, going to therapy and surrounding herself with positive support systems. She does not believe other people can be held responsible for a suicide death.
“People have misinformation about mental health and they think it’s a choice,” Bela said. “Many people might say ‘Oh they’re just being stubborn or they’re just being dramatic’ so are those people responsible? Not necessarily. We’re responsible for getting education for ourselves and for sharing what we know as we learn it.”
MHA of Lancaster County has been leading mental health discussions at community groups, businesses and local schools. Suicide has become the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States.
FOX43 Reveals that suicides rates have risen more than 30 percent over the past 20 years. Suicide was responsible for more than 47,500 deaths in 2019, which is about one death every 11 minutes.
The number of people who think about or attempt suicide is even higher. In 2019, 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.4 million attempted suicide.
At least 39 suicide deaths happen every week in Pennsylvania, according to the most recent data available from the State Department of Health. The suicide rate among men is more than three times higher than among women.
“The draw to suicide period can be just the fact that it’s a release. It’s a freedom from all of these things and it seems easy, but at the same time we want to instill hope in people and say that’s not the only option. That’s not the only choice,” Bela said.
Mental health advocates believe hope is one of the strongest proponents to suicide prevention. Yet the negative draw of the website can be enticing to people who are struggling with their mental health.
Bieber has been fighting to shut down the website, worried about the potential harm to other families. Behind every statistic is a person. Like Shawn, they are musicians, readers, sisters and daughters.
More importantly, they are loved. And that is why hope matters.
“I don’t want someone to find their child like I found Shawn,” said Bieber. “I don’t want someone to feel like Shawn did that day, like there is no hope and go on this website and feel like death was the only answer.”
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In July, you will be able to reach that lifeline by dialing ‘988.’
There are many organizations across Pennsylvania that offer resources and support. To get started, you can find a list of groups in each county on the Prevent Suicide PA website.
FOX43 Reveals issues that affect you and your family to keep you informed. If you have a topic you want us to investigate, send us an email at FOX43reveals@FOX43.com.