Tragic Callie Lewis learned how to kill herself and fool carers in online suicide forums before being found dead aged 24 – The Sun
“GOOD luck! We all wish you a swift travel.” “May you find peace my friend.”
These are some of the final messages sent from users of a “damaging” online suicide forum to a young British woman who ended her own life after seeking advice online.
Callie Lewis, whose story will feature on tonight's Panorama – was just 24 years old when she killed herself in 2018 — and pro-suicide website were partly blamed for her tragic death.
Callie, who had Asperger’s Syndrome — a mild form of autism — began using the website in the weeks leading up to her death in August 2018.
She had been diagnosed with chronic depression, and sometimes spoke about suicide — but had always managed to pull through dark times with the help of friends and family.
So when Callie started to cut off those closest to her, and instead sought solace in a “pro-choice” suicide forum, her friends and family were beside themselves with worry.
The website — which we will not name due to its graphic and harmful content – provided detailed information on various suicide methods, and users would regularly normalise and encourage others to follow through with their plans to end their lives.
Shockingly, the site has more than 10,000 users, and can be found on search engines including Google.
Vulnerable people from all over the world access the website, including many who say they are from the UK.
It is not known exactly how many deaths the website has contributed to, but there are many conversations where people claim to be ending their lives — and a number of the formerly active users are marked as “deceased” after seemingly following through with suicides.
The same website also contributed to the death of Shawn Shatto, a 25-year-old woman from the USA who died after turning to the forum for advice and guidance.
In the weeks running up to her death, Callie, from Dover, Kent, posted almost 200 messages on the forum — and despite her obvious distress and desperate need for medical intervention, nobody tried to prevent the vulnerable young woman from ending her life.
'Obsessed' with the end
Callie was also under the care of Kent and Medway NHS Trust at the time of her death, and an inquest ruled that a series of catastrophic failings contributed to her suicide.
The website was also found to be partly to blame, as Callie was receiving information from users on how best to evade the authorities and avoid being sectioned for her own safety.
Over the past 16 months, I spent time with Callie’s family — trying to track her last movements and learn what went so tragically wrong.
Her friends and family feel that without the website, Callie would not have followed through with ending her life.
Callie’s Granddad, Graham Lewis, 65, says Callie would often become “obsessed” with things for a period of time due to her autism — and said this set off an “alarm bell” when one of Callie’s friends warned the family she had been using a suicide website.
“It began to feel like an obsession,” he explains. “She could have a depressive mood and suicidal thoughts, and that was manageable because you could help her through that.
“But her obsessions, you just couldn’t do anything about them.”
Callie’s heartbroken mum, Sarah Lewis, added: “Without those forums, I think my daughter would have really struggled to find the information that she was looking for about how to die.”
The website labels itself as a “pro-choice” forum — and says it provides a “safe space” for people to talk about suicide — but Callie’s friend Jan branded it “very damaging”.
In one of her first posts, Callie said: “I’m glad I’ve found this site as it feels near impossible to discuss suicide openly.”
I worked on tonight's Panorama, and tried to track down the owners of the website, but they have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep their identities a secret — despite insisting they are doing nothing wrong in championing freedom of speech in their forum.
They refused to let us interview them on camera, used aliases and would only communicate via an encrypted messaging system.
In a text message exchange, the owners of the site told me: “We offer a space to discuss the topic of suicide without censorship.
“Our community and website does not encourage suicide. That is strictly against the rules.”
When grilled on the danger of giving detailed methodology to suicidal people, they added: “Information is power… What you do with it is your responsibility.”
Before finding the suicide forum, Callie had attempted several times to kill herself. Sarah was so concerned she called police and asked them to intervene.
Police visited Callie at a friend’s house, and despite finding a noose and noticing bruise marks on her neck, they were unable to detain her as she was on private property.
The officers left her and she was told to attend an appointment with the Mental Health Crisis team the following day.
Callie turned to the suicide forum for help, asking: “Any advice for the crisis team? I’m seeing them in two hours.”
One user advised her: “You’ll have to play along and pretend that it was just a passing cloud and that you’re ‘getting better’.”
Taking the advice on board, Callie was released — and her family were once again left in a frantic bid to find the young woman and get her the professional help she so desperately needed.
After further pleas from Sarah, Callie was eventually sectioned by police in Dover for her own safety — but had to spend an entire night in their car due to a lack of available mental health beds in Canterbury, Kent.
You’ll have to play along and pretend that it was just a passing cloud and that you’re ‘getting better'
The following day she had an appointment at St Martin’s Hospital, part of Kent and Medway NHS Trust, and was again released as she denied any immediate intention to kill herself.
Callie’s care was then taken over by the local Community Mental Health Team in Dover, and things went disastrously wrong — causing her to slip through the cracks in the system.
A duty care coordinator was assigned to Callie’s case and attempted to call her three times — but received no answer.
At this stage Callie should have received an in-person visit, but this did not happen.
The care coordinator was then assigned as Callie’s full time case worker, but went off sick and her case was not handed over to somebody else. As a result, she became lost in the system.
Too late to save Callie
By the time staff realised Callie was missing, she was 350 miles away in Cumbria and was only found by the police two days after her death.
Throughout those almost two weeks when Callie went off radar, she continued to use the suicide website as she planned to end her life.
At no point did any user point her in the direction of services who may be able to help, encourage her to engage with the mental health services or try to prevent her from following through with her suicide plans.
Following the inquest into Callie’s death, the Coroner wrote to the Department of Media, Culture and Sport raising her concerns on the website and asked for further actions to be taken to prevent other deaths.
A spokesperson for the DCMS told the BBC: "We know more needs to be done to tackle the promotion of self-harm and the targeting of vulnerable people online.
The Sun's You're Not Alone campaign aims to help prevent deaths from suicide
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 has launched the You're Not Alone campaign. To remind anyone facing a tough time, grappling with mental illness or feeling like there's nowhere left to turn, that there is hope.
We share the stories of brave survivors, relatives left behind, heroic Good Samaritans – and tips from mental health experts.
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. Remember, 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
"We have formed a partnership of suicide prevention experts funded by social media companies to support people and improve research.
"And we’re developing world-leading laws to put a new duty of care on online companies towards their users.
"This will be overseen by an independent regulator with tough enforcement powers to hold them to account.”
BBC Panorama ‘Failed By The NHS: Callie’s Story’ is on BBC One tonight at 8.30pm, and available afterwards on iPlayer.
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