online influence

Blue Whale panic: Across India, police find little connection to online suicide game

Media reports have blamed the computer challenge for prompting several youth to kill themselves. But the authorities are sceptical.

About week before 15-year-old Ankan Dey’s body was found in the bathroom of his home on August 12, a towel wrapped around his neck and a plastic sheet around his face, he had scribbled an English poem in his notebook. Dey had shown the poem to a close circle of friends, who recommended he show it to one of the teachers at their school in West Midnapore district. He did not.

“He later told his friends it was not an original composition and he had picked it up randomly from the internet,” said a police officer privy to the investigation into Dey’s death. “I do not remember whose poetry it actually was but it expressed immense grief. The victim left no suicide note. So far, the poem is the only clue that leads us to the logical assumption that he could be a victim of severe depression.”

Almost immediately after Dey’s suicide, it began to be reported as the first death linked to the global Blue Whale phenomenon in West Bengal.

The Blue Whale Challenge is said to be an online game in which a designated curator assigns players various tasks over a 50-day period, culminating in the player committing suicide. It is believed to have originated in Russia and spread to other countries. In the past several months, several suicides across India have been linked with the challenge in some form of the other, prompting demands that the game be banned. The Central government has even ordered Facebook and Google to take all material connected to the challenge down.

Yet an examination of the actual cases reportedly connected to the Blue Whale Challenge in India suggest tenuous links, many of which have emerged only after the game hit headlines.

“Ankan Dey did not take the Blue Whale Challenge,” said Bharati Ghosh, superintendent of police in West Midnapore. “The boy did not have a smart phone. He surfed the internet quite often from a computer in his father’s shop. We have examined all his online interactions and reached the conclusion that he did not take any such challenge.”

Why was his suicide linked to the Blue Whale Challenge then?

The day after Dey’s death, reporters thronged the locality and they went around posing questions to residents, even children who claimed to be friends with the victim, said one of the journalists who was there that day. “Some of the boys who were interviewed mentioned about Ankan playing video games and that led to the quick assumption that the death could have links with the Blue Whale Challenge,” said the journalist, asking to remain unidentified. “By then, news about the challenge and mysterious suicides worldwide was already doing the rounds.”

The journalist’s story was corroborated by Ghosh, who said that the reporters did come to the police raising suspicions about links with the Blue Whale Challenge. “So we went on to speak with all the friends of the victim,” Ghosh said. “Many of them told the police that the boy was fond of video games but they had not even heard of the Blue Whale Challenge.”

Hasty conclusion

It is about the same story with the “Blue Whale-linked suicides” reported from Mumbai and Delhi.

In Mumbai, a 14-year-old boy jumped to death from the terrace of a seven-floor building in Andheri East area on July 29. He had photographed himself sitting on the parapet just before jumping off and captioned it: “Soon the only thing you would be left with is a picture of me.” The death was reported in the media on July 31, as the first suspected case of Blue Whale-linked suicide in India.

While one news report claimed the boy had been playing the Blue Whale Challenge, attributing it to unidentified police sources, another quoted a friend of the victim saying almost all his friends knew he had taken up the challenge. This report went on to quote an unidentified teacher saying the boy was addicted to video games but he was not sure if Blue Whale Challenge was one of them. It also quoted unidentified school officials saying they had learnt that the boy often talked about Russia over the past two years.

The police, however, contradicted these claims. “The cause of suicide is not known yet and no Blue Whale angle has emerged in our investigation,” said Pandurang Patil, senior inspector at Meghwadi Police Station who is monitoring the case. Patil, however, refused to explain how the Blue Whale angle had emerged in the first place.

In Delhi, the 19-year-old son of a former Manipur minister died after falling from the terrace of a restaurant in South Delhi’s Hauz Khas area on August 12. This death too was linked to the Blue Whale Challenge in a report published in The Times of India.

“From preliminary investigation, it seems like a case of accident and not suicide,” said Chinmoy Biswal, additional deputy commissioner of police. “We have registered a case under the charge of negligence causing death. We have questioned friends and acquaintances of the victim and no Blue Whale angle has emerged in our investigation so far.”

A few cases of attempted suicide in India have also been linked to the Blue Whale Challenge. One such case was reported from Indore in Madhya Pradesh. On August 10, a class 7 student tried to jump from the third floor of his school building. The 14-year-old was reportedly rescued by the physical education teacher, who was quoted in a news report as saying the boy had confessed to the principal that his suicide attempt was part of the challenge.

When Scroll.in contacted the teacher, Farooq Sheikh, he said he was not authorised to comment on the matter.

Sangeeta Poddar, the principal, said: “Our first responsibility was to save the boy. Later, we arranged for a counselling session, which was attended by the boy and his parents. It came to light that he often played games on his father’s phone. We cannot say anything beyond this as the matter is being probed by the police.”

The police said the boy “never took up the Blue Whale Challenge. “However, the boy is tech-savvy and he had knowledge about the Blue Whale Challenge,” said Rupesh Dwivedi, additional superintendent of police in Indore. “During investigation, it also emerged that he had come across the link to the challenge once on his father’s phone. But he never signed up for it.”

It also emerged, the police said, that the boy was extremely stressed because of some academic difficulties. The Blue Whale angle appeared because many of his friends were aware of the challenge and they raised suspicion. But it did not turn out to be so, said a senior police official who did not want to be identified.

A similar case was reported in Dehradun. In Maharashtra, a teenager who had left his home in Solapur early this month was rescued from a highway by the police. A report in Mid Day claimed he had left for Pune to execute a Blue Whale task.

Scroll.in could not independently verify the Blue Whale links in these two cases.

The Russia connection

India is not alone in reporting suicides linked to the Blue Whale Challenge. Russia is the epicentre of the phenomenon. A report on Snopes.com, which specialises in researching and fact-checking urban legends, explains how the trend was first reported by a Russian website Novaya Gazeta in May 2016. The Russian site had analysed 130 suicides of children in the country from November 2015 to April 2016, and concluded that at least 80 of them were related to the Blue Whale Challenge. But Radio Free Europe, a broadcaster funded by the United States, investigated these claims, and found that deaths across Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics had been linked to the Blue Whale Challenge without any conclusive evidence.

In July this year, Russian authorities arrested a 22-year-old man they suspected of being the ringleader of the Blue Whale Challenge, after he bragged about convincing teenagers to commit suicide. He has since been jailed for three years for inciting people to kill themselves, the Daily Mail reported.

India’s response

In India, Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi took up the matter with Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad last week, asking for removal of all links to the Blue Whale Challenge from the social media. In her letter to the two ministers, Gandhi’s said the game was believed to have persuaded some 100 children and young adults to kill themselves in the United States, China and elsewhere, PTI reported.

On August 15, according to PTI, the Centre ordered Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Microsoft and Yahoo to remove the Blue Whale Challenge from their platforms.

Twin suicides in Kerala

Two suicides most closely linked to the Blue Whale Challenge occurred in Kerala, one in Kannur district on May 19 and the other in the capital Thiruvananthapuram on July 27.

The young man who killed himself on May 19 was MK Sawant, 22, who had freshly graduated from an Industrial Training Institute. The other was Class 11 student named Manoj Chandran. Both hanged themselves at home. Their parents have told the police they fell victim to the Blue Whale challenge.

Chandran’s mother, Anu, first raised the Blue Whale angle with the police on August 16, 20 days after her son’s death. She claimed she did so after being prodded by a friend who explained the threat posed by the challenge. Sawant’s mother, Sakhee, raised this concern almost three months after her son’s death, after hearing about Chandran’s case.

The police, however, have not been able to establish any connection between the suicides and the Blue Whale Challenge so far, nor have the parents been able to help the police with any evidence.

Anu said her son had once told her about a popular adventure game called Blue Whale, which would either drive people insane or lead them to suicide. That was in November 2016 . “I asked him not to play that game,” she said. “I noticed many behavioural changes in him after December. But I did not take them seriously.”

As listed by his mother, the behavioural changes included Chandran refusing to study any further, wanting to tour India on a motorbike, and made late night visits to the beach and a cemetery.

Asked why she did not complain about Blue Whale Challenge immediately after her son’s death, she said, “I opened his mobile many days after his death. I did not believe when he told me that he visited cemetery and beaches at night. But I was shocked to see the videos on his mobile. Then I could easily establish the fact that he took the Blue Whale challenge.”

She added: “I approached the police after being prodded by a friend, who told me that Blue Whale Challenge would claim more lives in Kerala if I didn’t open up.”

Anu said she had tried to persuade Chandran to see a psychiatrist but he refused. She claimed she once saw the letters “ABI” cut into her son’s forearm with a sharp object and blood oozing from the injury. A report in The Times of India, however, quoted the station house officer of Vilappilsala police station as saying that the boy’s postmortem did not reveal any signs of injury.

According to Sakhee, her son was addicted to video games and stayed up till late at night. She was convinced about the Blue Whale link after hearing of Chandran’s case, she said.

Sawant too had shown behavioural problems after passing class 10, she said. He once went missing for 10 days when he was studying in in Thalassery and had attempted suicide twice, in 2016 and 2017. “Sawant was being treated for depression for the past four years,” said Dr Vineetha Tom, psychiatrist at Christu Raj Hospital.

The police, however, have attributed Sawant’s suicide to a failed love affair.

Kannur district police chief Siva Vikram, who is probing Sawant’s death, said they have not found substantial proof to link the suicide to the Blue Whale Challenge.

K Anil Kumar, who recently retired as Assistant Commandant of Cyberdom, a technological research and development centre of the Kerala Police, recommended a cautious approach before making any conclusions about the Blue Whale Challenge. “I think these are just rumours,” he added. “There were many inconsistencies in the complaints by the parents of the dead youngsters. Let the police complete the inquiry.”

With inputs from TA Ameerudheen in Kerala.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.