Informed people live longer
26 May 2017 03:45 (South Africa)
Opinionista Antoinette Muller

#BlueWhale and the dangers of bogeymen

  • Antoinette Muller
    still-a-boy copy.jpg
    Antoinette Muller

    Antoinette thinks of the world and the people who live in it as a bear with a sore paw. She has a stick covered in thorns and she’s poking the bear. When she’s not doing that, she’s watching cricket and longing for the days of the boring, boring Arsenal.

The hysteria over the #BlueWhale game has been utterly vapid and devoid of critical analysis in the underlying mental health issues that might lead vulnerable young people to do terrible things.

This past week, something called #BlueWhale has been dripping through South African headlines. The story goes like this: young people are downloading an app that is giving them weird tasks and it ultimately asks them to take their own life.

Concerned parents have been calling talk radio stations and leaving comments on the internet in sheer terror of the game hitting South African shores. But there is one slight problem. The story has been debunked. The actual details around the app and its creator as well as the number of young people who have taken their own lives aren’t reliable, and while tabloids have cottoned on to the fearmongering, the actual evidence remains limited.

Jacques Rousseau‏ has already written an extensive analysis on how the subject has been covered in South African media – with some previous examples of other cases where well-meaning, god-fearing citizens have thought that the occult must be to blame, but I want to focus specifically on how the coverage is extremely damaging to those of us who care about mental health.

The way this story has played out in South African media has been absolutely hair-raising. And that’s not because of some bogeyman luring vulnerable young people to a preventable death. The issue is that not a single ounce of “analysis” anywhere has ventured into the issue of mental health and the impact that it has on vulnerable people.

People who do what they can to raise awareness about mental health already face an uphill battle to break down stigmas, no matter where you are in the world. From macho culture to, well, just cultural differences, the fight to get people to see issues like depression as an illness is a never-ending one.

It is alarming that we are so willing to jump on some mythical sensationalism of a random game in “causing” suicide – but the deeply troubling statistics of the mental health issues that lead to these are often ignored. It puts us on a dangerous path of putting vulnerable young people at even greater risk.

This is 2017, for goodness’ sake. Surely we’ve got past the hidden messages in our music driving young people who feel desperately alone and lost to do terrible things?

By giving credence to some fictitious bogeyman for the suicides of teenagers, we’re taking a hundred steps back from recognising mental health as an illness that needs better access to treatment, especially in South Africa where it is severely lacking.

We should have long moved past the stage where, if a young person is hurting themselves or having such dark thoughts, it must be some external factor influencing them instead of simply accepting that they might be ill.

As Rousseau‏ critically notes, suicidal teens might well flock to games and communities like Blue Whale because they are suicidal, rather than become suicidal because of Blue Whale.

This vital point has been completely absent from all of the so-called “analysis” of this issue. The hysteria over a game is just another misdemeanour in a long list of offences of failing in the fight against mental health stigmas and protecting those who desperately need it. DM

  • Antoinette Muller
    still-a-boy copy.jpg
    Antoinette Muller

    Antoinette thinks of the world and the people who live in it as a bear with a sore paw. She has a stick covered in thorns and she’s poking the bear. When she’s not doing that, she’s watching cricket and longing for the days of the boring, boring Arsenal.

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles






Do Not Miss