A mother of a young man who killed himself after strangers on a pro-suicide website told him how to take his life is leading a campaign for a UK ban.
Fish and chip shop worker Joe Nihill, 23, exchanged dozens of messages with suicide advocates in the four days before his death.
Members shockingly suggested where to buy – and take – the readily available £8 substance he used to end his life.
Devastated mum Catherine Nihill, 49, told the Sunday People: “It’s like some form of murder.
“We are determined to do all we can to stop these sites. They prey on the vulnerable and depressed and encourage them life isn’t worth living.
“We have seen videos where people on these sites have hosted a suicide, got the person to stream their death life. The whole thing is sickening.
Catherine has the support of her local MP, Labour’s Richard Burgon, who is bringing an early day motion in Parliament with the support of 22 other MPs in an attempt to outlaw the pro-suicide forums.
Last month, Conservative MP Owen Paterson also vowed to help tackle “horribly inviting” pro-suicide sites after his wife Rose, 64, took her life five months ago after accessing them.
Catherine is calling for the ban after finding her son dead on the sofa of their family home in Leeds on April 4.
“I felt broken. There are no other words,” she said.
Catherine’s house was evacuated by police when Joe was found because the substance he used -which is legal and common in food production – is deadly in large quantities.
The family began searching for answers online after a police officer identified the substance – as they did not understand how he would have known about it.
Within hours, Melanie Saville, the girlfriend of Joe’s brother Arron, found Joe’s profile on a pro-suicide forum where, over four days, he had suggested methods for killing himself, and received dozens of tips in reply.
Joe had started seven threads and exchanged 57 messages with 17 people.
One messaged him to say the website had a “one of a kind camaraderie” as others told him how to take his life with the substance and shared their experiences.
Following Joe’s inquest in September, senior coroner Kevin McGloughlin wrote to Health Secretary Matt Hancock in a “preventing future deaths” report to warn the websites “may be breaking the criminal law by assisting suicide”.
He also said they “served to undermine both the benefit of the medical treatment and the constructive efforts of his family to restore his health.”
He added that there was a “foreseeable risk” others could be “drawn into deteriorating cycles of discussing methods of ending their lives” if pro-suicide websites were kept online
Mr McGloughlin also warned over the sale of the substance -which the Sunday People is not naming – and wrote to the seller warning him of the implications of the product.
Catherine told how her son’s mental health spiralled downwards following the death of his dad and grandma within a short space of time.
He had mental health treatment but was struggling with lockdown in the pandemic.
Catherine said: “My son was already confused. He admitted daily he felt suicidal, but these people were giving him permission.
“All of our efforts to help him restore himself were overlooked by this website.”
The Sunday People was easily able to access the suicide site – which calls itself a “pro-choice community” – and thousands of posts from users in turmoil.
Participants regularly discuss plans to kill themselves and share practical tips in threads without pointing suicidal users towards mental health support.
Melanie said: “Joe was vulnerable and at risk and the last thing you want are people on the web willing you to commit suicide.
“They are out there on the web and nobody is doing anything to shut them down.”
“When we started looking into the sort of things they get up to we were amazed. they are out there on the web and nobody is doing anything to shut them down. It’s not as if they aren’t visible. It doesn’t take long to find them. They are sick, encouraging people to live stream killing themselves. That’s dreadful beyond belief.”
Joe’s mental health began to suffer in November 2016 when his granddad Gerald died of prostate cancer.
Two days after I ordered enough of the substance online to kill four adult men, it was posted through my door in a brown package.
If you are like me, then you’ve probably not visited the part of the internet where people discuss how to get such substances and encourage each other to take them.
While happily search engines like Google do not highlight these suicide forums, if someone shares the address with you – like Melanie did with me – you’re suddenly inside an incredibly morbid world.
The first thing that strikes you upon logging on is how well designed and smoothly operating the website is – clearly not the work of an amateur, but someone with a bit of money behind them.
Click onto one of the page’s thousands of message boards and you will find some content that is, quite frankly, very upsetting.
Thread upon thread are filled with cries for help from people who are clearly suffering from serious emotional turmoil.
Rather than urging them not to kill themselves or signpost people who can help, like the Samaritans, the chat boards provide tips, encouragement and even deals from substance sellers.
After reading through the advice given to Joe I set about searching for the item suggested to him.
It is possibly testament to the good work Melanie and Catherine have already done that it was not overly easy to find.
After Joe’s inquest the coroner, encouraged by Joe’s family, contacted the vendor of the substance he used, who removed it from their site.
In the past month a lot of UK websites have removed sellers following a concerted campaign by Melanie, Catherine and the families of other victims.
Many websites still list the chemical for sale, but clearly advertise its primary function and warn about how harmful it can be.
I contacted one seller who explained that they don’t send it out to addresses that aren’t universities or schools, where it can be used properly and safely.
Others, including the one where I bought the substance for £5, were less scrupulous and required no information from me aside from my card details, name and address.
Two days later it was pushed through my letter box and into my flat.
I have never suffered from serious mental health difficulties or suicidal thoughts, but I cannot deny feeling intensely uncomfortable about having something like that in my home.
While I generally find myself on the more liberal end of the political spectrum when it comes to areas like drug legislation, the sale of these kits is a completely different matter.
Numerous studies have shown that the availability of easier, less gory methods of suicide significantly increase someone’s chance of killing themselves.
Had such items and websites as the one Joe bought and used not been accessible, there is a chance he would have had more time to receive the help he needed.
A year later he pulled out of university after he was stabbed in the street in a random attack.
Four months after that Catherine’s husband Oluwafemi Adenekan, known to him as ‘dad’, died of heart disease, and his grandma Mary passed away four months later.
Catherine, who has three other children, said: “They were big knockbacks. He was depressed by it all and then there was the break up of a relationship with a girl
“Before all these things happened in his life he was not suicidal. He was a great son and a bit of a joker.
Joe made attempts on his life, but his family intervened and he received support from Leeds mental Health Trust and had been voluntarily sectioned.
His struggled during lockdown as Catherine and the family ensured he still took his medication.
Catherine said: “We did our best to look after him. We didn’t know about the suicide websites until after he died.
The seller of the substance which Joe bought told the Sunday People he was “really shocked” to receive the letter and had “no idea people were using it to kill themselves”.
He added: “I’ve spoken to Melanie from Joe’s family and have done what I can by no longer stocking it.”
In an investigation, the Sunday People was able to buy the product for £5 online via another website and it arrived two days later. The label listed its intended function but no toxicity warning.
A Department of Culture spokesman said that aiding or counselling a person to kill themselves is punishable with up to 14 years in prison under the 1961 Suicide Act. An Online Harm Bill is underway which could see firms held accountable for hosting potentially harmful content.
Joe’s family have launched a petition calling for a ban on the sale of potentially harmful substances and websites that advocate suicide – which has almost 5,000 signatures so far.
Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East, who is bringing an early-day motion to Westminster calling for action against pro-suicide forums said:
“Joe was a well loved young man who tragically took his own life after accessing online forums containing promotion of suicide.“This case shows the real harm that can be caused by these online suicide forums.
“I put down this motion in Parliament to support the campaign Joe’s family are organising to make sure what happened to Joe doesn’t happen to other young people.”
The Department of Culture is already working on the much-delayed Online Harms Bill, which was unveiled last year following the tragic death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who killed herself after viewing online images of self-harm on Instagram.
The legislation may be able to hold websites accountable if they fail to tackle harmful content online.
This week, Molly’s father, Ian Russell, said there was a need for urgent action after it was revealed that Instagram removed almost 80% less graphic content about suicide and self-harm between April and June this year than in the previous quarter.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists fear a surge of mental health referrals during this lockdown, after a survey reported a 55% increase in patients requiring emergency help in the first wave.
Catherine added: “Every day we’re fighting for Joe’s life.”
Cathy Woffendin, Director of Nursing, Professions and Quality at Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, said:
“I would like to offer my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr Joseph Nihill. This is a tragic loss for the family and our thoughts are with them.
“We are currently conducting an investigation into the care provided to Mr Nihill. We are in contact with the family to ensure that the review addresses any concerns they have.
“The full findings of the review and the report will be shared with Mr Nihill’s family as well as the staff involved in his care.
“We fully support the report issued by the West Yorkshire Coroner to the Health Secretary –
highlighting concerns around websites and forums promoting and advising on suicide.
“We hope that some positive change can come from the sad death of Mr Nihill.”