Inspired by lasting MySpace profiles, a Web site creator fills a niche for remembering the dead with

Laurie Sullivan, Contributor

August 31, 2006

3 Min Read

It all began after Mike Patterson read the news about a father who brutally murdered his family and then committed suicide due to mounting debt.

Putting down the paper, he searched on the social networking site to find the daughter's name, and, after seeing several more profiles of kids who were deceased, wondered how many other users of the site had died.

Patterson's findings inspired the 25-year-old from San Francisco to begin building a site to educate youth, he said in an e-mail. MyDeathSpace began as a message board in August/September 2005, with the purpose of tracking all members who had passed away., launched in January 2006, links to news storied culled from the Web and victims' MySpace pages. The site gives mourners a place to connect online.

It will also give behavior researchers at the University of South Florida insight into a topic they want to study -- the psychosocial effects that social networks might have on youth, and whether online memorials and forums that focus on death encourage teen suicides or comfort those grieving.

"I've heard reports of young people who got into destructive dialogue online where they would dare each other to die, or share ways to complete the suicide successfully," said Ilene Berson, an associate professor at the University of Florida's Mental Health Institute. "Without doing the research we really have no idea, but it would be exciting to find that people who engage in social networking sites are less likely to commit suicide."

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year olds, behind accidents and homicides, she said. Understanding the dynamics of how youth today talk online about suicide could eventually help build prevention initiatives, Berson said Wednesday.

"We plan to submit the request for the project's federal funding in October to the National Institute of Mental Health," she said.

Berson said that the Internet lacks policing efforts similar to those at newspapers and broadcast outlets, where news stories about suicides are sometimes subdued.

The digital age has created new ways for kids to send trouble signals. A Capistrano Valley High School teenager shot himself to death after posting suicide warnings on a Web site for teens and young adults, according to a page on Josh Ballard, 17, who took his life in November 2005, began communicating his troubles at least one year prior on, the Web site said. Friends became alarmed Monday night and posted messages that urged him not to hurt himself, but at 8:14 a.m., Tuesday, the Mission Viejo, Calif., male left a message saying "call the police" and "I'm so sorry." The site says at about 8:30 a.m., Ballard sent a suicide text message over his cellular telephone.

A 19-year-old woman known as Melissa posted a memorial for Ballard on her page.

On Aug. 29, there were 460 deaths, 61 suicides, and 27 murderers listed on Patterson's e-mail inbox holds countless more that he must add, but he doesn't have enough time to keep the site updated properly. "There are around 2,000 unread e-mails in my inbox currently and that number grows daily," he said.

Viewers of the site submit deaths using a submission form on the MyDeathSpace homepage. Anyone can submit a new death anonymously. On the submission form, there are places to fill out the name of the deceased, cause of death, and spots to include a link to the MySpace profile and a news article confirming the death.

Soon, those who visit the site will find better search features, maps and charts. The new Web site format also should fix the "page 10" problem, which prevents viewers from reading deaths past page 10, Patterson explained. Patterson intends to donate money" from advertising revenue generated on to the National Institute of Mental Health and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

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