Ethics Alarm Check: What Do You Do If You Get A Text Like This One From A Close Friend?


A friend asks via text:

“What you do if you knew a friend was trying to commit suicide?”

You text back,

“Talk them out of it”

Then he texts you…

“The thing is i wanna help kill them. it be awesome. seriously im going to help her. Its like getting away with murder! Im so fucked up. I’m seriously not joking. Its going down in about a week or two.”

This was the actual scenario preceding the suicide of a 16 year old girl (above. left) in Utah.

Hunters found the girl’s body hanging from a tree.  A can of industrial strength air duster and a cellphone were nearby, and the latter  contained a video of the girl’s death.

It showed the girl with a noose around her neck, standing on  on a rock. She inhaled the contents of the air duster can, lost consciousness, and fell off the rock, causing the noose to tighten and slowly strangle her. The video captures the ten minutes  it took the girl to die.

Tyerell Przybycien, 18, arrived at the scene to claim credit for the video, telling officers that he knew the girl and was with her when she died. He told detectives that he had a fascination with death and wanted to see what it was like to watch somebody perish.

Yes, it was Przybycien who wrote the text message to a friend.

There are other disturbing aspects to the story, but my professional interest is in the conduct of Przybycien’s friend. Let us eschew, for now, the question of why anyone would have a friend like this sicko in the first place.

We know the friend has at least rudimentary ethics alarms, since his first response, “Talk her out of it,” was the right one. After that, however, his ethics alarms died. Przybycien told him that he was planning on helping a girl kill herself because it would be a turn-on, and the friend did nothing to stop him…or at least did nothing that did stop him.

We can speculate endlessly about what would work and what would not, but this tragic scenario lands squarely in the realm of the Ethics Alarms principle, “If you are in a position to stop unethical conduct, stop it.” Here a life was involved, activating the coda, “Whatever it takes.”

What might some measures be that could fulfill this ethical imperative?

1. Get the friend to tell you the name of the girl.

2. Try to talk HIM out of it.

3. Alert the police.

4. Alert the girl’s family.

5. Alert the friend’s family

6. Alert the friend’s school

7. Alert a local suicide hotline.

8. Alert news organizations.

9. Alert a local elected official and tell him that if the girl dies, you’ll let the news media know that he let it happen.

10. Alert anyone you can possibly think of until the girl is safe.

11. Get the friend to agree to keep you informed about his plans.

12. See if he”ll agree to let you help, so you can contact rescuers before the event.

What else?

This is a sequence that needs to be improvised according to events. One thing we do know: Przybycien’s friend failed to stop the tragedy. Is he or she legally culpable? No. Did he or she fail an ethical duty? Absolutely.

There would be risks involved for the friend. It all could be a false alarm, and that could get  Przybycien’s friend in trouble. Whatever trouble it would be, however, was dwarfed in comparison to the looming tragedy and loss of human life if Przybycien was serious, as it turned out he was. Assuming that there is no danger is a gamble an ethical human being can not make.

Fix the problem. Whatever it takes.

What would you do?


Pointer: Fred


16 thoughts on “Ethics Alarm Check: What Do You Do If You Get A Text Like This One From A Close Friend?

  1. I would do 1-6, immediately, without hesitation. That way multiple people and institutions would be involved, meaning more opportunities to stop this from happening. I’m not sure a suicide hotline would be much help–are they allowed to seek people out?–so I wouldn’t do 7. 8 runs the risk of doing more harm than good. 9 would not occur to me. The rest hopefully wouldn’t be necessary after 1-6, but if necessary then I’d do them.

    • I’m not sure a suicide hotline would be much help
      Wrong. Jack’s “Do Everything” conclusion is ethically correct but it needs focus. Calling the local hotline (#7) would be your first response. They are the ones who know best who to contact, how to reach them, and what you can do or say (or not) yourself. Also, your best personal long-term support.

      –are they allowed to seek people out?
      Yes, of course, if necessary. And they should know best how to judge the urgency, defuse it as necessary or get the right kind of help fast with the least fuss and interference.

      –so I wouldn’t do 7
      A common conclusion, often resulting in denial, chaos, shaming, blaming, embarrassment, unnecessary publicity, and a lifetime of guilt for the survivors whether the suicidal person succeeds this time . . . or the next.

      A suicide prevention line is not a last resort, by the way. About 15 million people (just under 7% of the population) in this country have anxiety or depression that has dogged them for years. If you know someone who has been unable to shake long-term, non-stop feelings of loneliness, helplessness, grief, depression, the blues or just being down — however they describe it — even if they haven’t expressed to you an active desire to kill themselves: call the helpline or hotline yourself to get a handle on the situation and find out how you can help with it.

      If there is no local line, check out the national ones; some have chat lines or texting options, if you’re more comfortable with that.

  2. Jack,

    Out of curiosity, do you think it’s fair to charge Przybycien with murder (and, apparently, “Failing to Report a Body”)? I only ask because I’m reminded of the Kevin Spacey film “The Life of David Gale.” Have you seen it? Are you at least familiar with the ending?







    Kevin Spacey helps Laura Linney set up a scenario in which she films herself committing suicide, although makes the scene appear as though Spacey did it (which Spacey further helps stage), and making sure the tape is only revealed AFTER his execution to prove — DUN DUN DUN — that he was, in fact, innocent all along.

    • Sure. As with Kevorkian: assisting in a suicide is being an accessory to murder. Watching without stopping it? Or filming? I don’t want the law demanding action in situations that are case by case by nature. Then it’s back to the professor’s essay that the law should require rescue.

  3. Good Lord. You use all of your options, and hope one or two helps save a life. We do as much for abused pets.

  4. I think this is the flip/good side of the “DO Something!” rationalization. Whatever would be best, at least do something about this situation.

    A guy in our eighth grade class fatally shot himself in the head playing Russian roulette with his father’s .38. He died on his physician father’s operating table in the ER. Why the other kids Hunter was trying to impress didn’t say, “Hunter, this really isn’t a good idea. Let’s go swimming in your swimming pool” is beyond me. Even at that young age. Being young makes us stupid.

  5. All reasonable actions, except for the part of #9 that follows “Alert a local elected official….” It’s a clever idea, and not unreasonable, to ask an official to use his clout to spur quick action in a desperate situation like this. But to hold the official accountable for the death EVEN IF HE TRIED TO INTERVENE, as your post implies, is unreasonable, totally unfair, and possibly defamatory.

  6. My wife has legal responsibilities when she suspects or has knowledge of suicidal tendencies in a student. This therefore strikes close to home, as it is not purely hypothetical in our family: we deal with the repercussions even if the victim is saved.

    She has lost the trust of students, because the law requires her to report when they pop off about killing themselves, and seem under enough duress to follow through. She has also lost students. Either way, it is depressing and tears us up.

    Ethically, you must act in some way. I have called a parent I did not know to inform them what my child was told by their child. Uncomfortable? You bet. Was it real? In that case, no. The child was showing off to my young son. Knowing that, would I act differently? Since I did not hear the child, but trusted my son (who was seriously disturbed enough to bring it to me) I would do the same.

    Where there is life, there is hope.

  7. There should never be any hesitation; if you become aware of someone threatening suicide call the police, tell them what you know, and then do any of the other things in the 1 – 6 group you think appropriate. The police are the only ones who can actually take actions like entering someone’s home to be sure they are safe or get information from the phone company to help locate someone. They can also initiate 72 hour holds. When suicide hotlines get calls from someone who is talking about acting to harm themselves, they call the police. Might the individual get mad at you? Sure, but it’s better to have a live ex-friend than a dead friend. Slickwilly spoke truth, “Where there is life, there is hope.”

    Number 11 and 12 are bad ideas. When your friend is talking about killing themselves or someone else, you don’t need them to agree to let you do something. You just need to do it as quickly as possible.

    • JB is, of course, right about calling the police directly if someone is threatening suicide immediately. The usefulness of otherwise calling a suicide prevention line is that this is the place the person can talk — 24/7 — to someone who can listen and deflect, direct them to appropriate resources (social, professional, spiritual*, etc.) help, or intervene via the police, as well as be able to have the line as a non-judgmental resource they can depend on when they feel in crisis if there’s no better option.

      *Being an atheist keeps you human.

  8. Let’s set this up a little differently. Say you are hiking with a guy who tells you about the distraught person, who has told him about her intent to kill herself on this day at this time.

    You ask him why he is not trying to do something to help the girl. He tells you how much he admires this girl’s decision and respects her right to do it. You ask who the third persons is, so that you may try to find a way to get help to her. Your friend refuses to tell you the girl’s name. There is no phone service, land line or cell, in this location. You believe from what you have been told that time is absolutely critical.

    After repeated attempts to get the guy to tell you the girl’s name and location, he has refused to provide any further details. Is it less ethical to do nothing or to attempt to “beat the information out of him” so that you may try to save her life?

  9. Immediately, I am no long “friends” with a person who is abetting a thrill suicide. I would defer this action but it take zero time.

    Secondly, I would evaluate whether the suicide is real or it is a fiction. Part of the evaluation, is determining who, what, where, when, how. The information is necessary to get help.

    Thirdly, I would get local law enforcement involved using the information from my former “friend” who is encouraging the thrill suicide. The police will bring in professionals trained to evaluate the suicide threat, probably the local hospital psych department. Maybe the police will interview the former “friend” which would at least put him on notice even if he is not charged with a crime.

    Fourthly, I am in no position to make a suicide evaluation.

  10. Jack asked, “What would you do?”

    1. Any “friend” that would do something like this guy, watching a girl commit suicide or even think it’s funny to joke about something like that, this “friend” would no longer be my friend, period.

    2. I would get as much information as possible and immediately report the entire thing to the police so they could figure out who this girl is and get her the help she needs to save her life.

    Saving a life far outweighs any friendship.

    • Z, you have absolutely got this right. The kid had some insight when he said “I’m so fucked up.” Even if this had been a joke…maybe especially if that had been a joke. He needs help, serious help. And, since we are talking about a possible suicide/murder, we have no choice but to take him seriously, and act accordingly, with all 12 of Jacks suggestions plus any thing else we can think of.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.