real life

Keelian Jensen died by suicide in May. Then his mum found his search history.

This article contains discussions of suicide and may be triggering for some readers. For 24-hour mental health crisis support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. A trained crisis supporter is ready to take your call.

On the morning of Friday, May 1, 2020, Stina Jensen woke up early. 

Her 19-year-old son Keelian, who had been living out of home since December last year, was staying over. He’d called her late on the Wednesday night - so late he’d woken her up - asking if she could pick him up from the house he’d been sharing with his girlfriend. They’d had an argument, and for a few days, without telling anyone, he had been staying there alone. 

Stina picked him up and once they were back at the family home, Keelian went straight to sleep. The next day was entirely unremarkable. He spent time with his best friend, went for a walk with his 10-year-old sister, and when he went to bed, he told his parents he’d see them in the morning. 

Then Stina woke up. It was before 6am. 

I didn’t ask her specifically about the chronology of that morning. It seemed too soon and too raw for her to walk me through those moments.

But I do know that not long after 6am, Stina’s sister Camilla received a phone call. She could hear sirens in the background. 

At first, perhaps irrationally, she was convinced it would all be okay. Otherwise, she thought, what was the point of the ambulances coming? 

But Keelian was already gone. He had taken his own life.

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Keelian Jensen loved fishing, Xbox, kayaking, going to the beach, “anything with his family or his girlfriend,” his mum tells Mamamia

As a child and as a young man he was “softer, gentler, always very affectionate,” she says. His aunt, Camilla, explains that while lots of boys pull away from their families when they hit adolescence, Keelian didn’t do that. He was “very sensitive, and very caring”. 

Then at 16, after a relationship breakdown, it became clear he wasn’t coping. “He was heartbroken,” Stina says. “So he got on a mental health plan at that stage, and he came good.”

Sharing photos of Keelian at his 18th, Stina recalls how happy he was that year. “That was such a good year for him,” she says. “He had his big 18th which was exactly how he wanted it.”

Keelian with his best friend at his 18th birthday party. Image: Supplied.

In the lead up to that Friday morning in May, Stina says there weren’t the usual ‘signs’ we’re told to look out for. But in hindsight, perhaps there was a “peacefulness” - an uncharacteristic sense of calm that some say comes before suicide.

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When Stina found Keelian that morning, his phone was nearby. The police took it, and returned it about a week later. 

She charged it, and decided to turn Keelian’s phone on to see what her son had been looking at in his final moments. She found his search history. In a sense, it was a portal to discover what her son had been thinking, what questions he’d been asking, on the last night of his life.

At first, there were search terms that were typical of Keelian. He googled an Xbox game that was coming out soon. Then he googled the moon. Then Venus.

At around 9.30pm, Stina saw two searches for two specific words. Keelian was googling how to spell two words that would appear in the letter he left behind. 

From about 1.50am to 2.50am, the nature of his searches changed. “He was googling very specific questions relating to how he took his own life,” Stina says. 

“He’d actually done about five different searches in that time, but all along the same [lines]. 

“It was very obvious from what he typed in he wasn’t just searching up innocent [phrases],” she says. “He asked very specific questions. And when I clicked on what he had seen… one of them was like a YouTube video that popped up. And it was step by step.”

Stina felt the urge to know exactly what had come up when Keelian - young, vulnerable, and alone, in the early hours of a Friday morning - had typed terms related to suicide into the world’s largest search engine. 

When she searched the phrases on her phone, a Lifeline number popped up. “It’s one that you can just swipe it away and it’s gone and you can still get to what you’re looking for,” she says.  

“My belief is just from the timeframe of how he searched it, I think that had [the information] not been so easy for him to access, I’m just not sure he actually would have done it. 

“When you’re in that state of mind, the fact that you can so easily find what you’re thinking at that precise moment... like there’s no stall. There’s no stop and think about it. There’s no work to find what you want to find.”

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As soon as she heard about the search terms on Keelian’s phone, and the ease with which he was able to get the information that would ultimately end his life, Camilla was overcome with the sense that something needed to change. 

“I wasn’t in the headspace to get involved [straight away],” she says. “I needed to make sure I could speak about it, and make sure I was coming to it from the right place… not just being irrational.”

Six weeks later, she launched a petition on Change.org. ‘Google - stop assisting suicide,’ it reads.

“Sometimes, minutes can be life or death,” she writes on the page. “I believe an extra half hour could have saved Keelian's life. Imagine how many people could be helped, and saved, if Google organised search results in a way that stalled people, helped them to rewind and reset.”

Camilla's Change.org petition. Image: Change.org.

The response to the petition has been mixed. Camilla says she’s had many people get in touch to say they’ve had similar experiences in their own lives - that they’ve lost brothers, sisters, kids, friends, and discovered search histories that mirror Keelian’s. But she’s also had people contact her to argue that her petition is pointless. 

“Some of them do make sense to me,” Camilla admits. “Obviously I am fully aware that if people want to do it, they’re going to find a way.

Her argument is simply “if it had taken a bit longer, it would have stalled him for a bit”. Surely, she says, “it could be slowed down and made harder”. 

Time did matter, in Keelian’s case.

“Keelian was found at about 5.30 in the morning,” Camilla says. “We’re fairly certain he was found within about half an hour of passing. A little bit more time could’ve made all the difference.”

And in terms of suicide prevention more broadly, it’s understood that time matters.

Suicide prevention services like Lifeline exist because in the mental heath space, we believe that suicidal crises are temporary conditions. 

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Clinical psychologist Dr Jill Harkavy-Friedman, who is the Vice President of Research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says suicide prevention hotlines are based on the premise that “people will stay on long enough to move past the crisis moment and refocus on their will to live”. 

Emotions aren’t fixed. Suicidal feelings and thoughts do pass. So is quick access to information about methods - a fairly new phenomenon, that’s come with the introduction of technology that allows us to have unlimited information at our fingertips - potentially deadly, for individuals who might otherwise survive a crisis moment?

There's evidence that, especially for young people, increased searches around suicide are linked with an increase in suicide deaths. Is that simply a reflection of how common it is for people to turn to google with their questions? Or is it a sign that the available search results are assisting, and not deterring, those who find them?

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Suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 15-44 in Australia, and males are three times more likely than females to die by suicide. In Australia, suicide accounts for 43 per cent of all deaths of males aged 15-19. 

A major risk factor for suicide, particularly in men, is the occurrence of a romantic relationship breakdown. When researchers report this, they are not in any way suggesting fault on the behalf of a person who ends a relationship. Instead, as two researchers from Cardiff University wrote in an analysis of this finding, “practitioners need to be alert to the possibility that relationship breakdown can be a trigger to suicidal acts”. 

But mental health issues, psychological distress and relationship breakdowns happen outside the four walls of a practitioner’s office, and men are also less likely than women to speak to those around them when they're struggling emotionally. 

So how can those individuals most at-risk be identified, and helped, before it's too late?

Speaking to Mamamia for this story, a Lifeline Australia spokesperson explained how they target their resources to those most in need. “We regularly geotarget some of our advertising through social media and Google display ads to communities that may be especially vulnerable,” said Ina Mullin, National Manager, Communications and Public Affairs.

“For example, most recently we geotargeted communities affected by bushfire. As we ramp up our capacity to provide increased text crisis services, we will also utilise geotargeting to ensure our message gets to those who may be most likely to benefit from knowing how to access our service.”

In Keelian’s case, when he googled terms related to suicide, the Lifeline number did appear at the top of the search results. 

“I can confirm Google does activate help-seeking messages informing people of our service against a range of help seeking topics including the language of suicidality and depending on the search term used, this message includes the Lifeline number,” Mullin said. “This is not an advertisement, but an activation encouraging access to 13 11 14 crisis support line which is available 24/7 nationally." 

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It appears as below:


What Keelian saw at the top of the page on Google. Image: Google.

But perhaps it’s Google - not Lifeline - who have the strongest ability to intervene at this point. 

An initiative as simple as slower loading times on content related to suicide methods may be enough for a vulnerable individual to become impatient, and make a cup of tea. To have a shower, or text a friend. To fall asleep, and wake up the next morning with a new sense of hope. 

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Speaking to Mamamia, a Google Australia spokesperson said:

"Our hearts go out to Keelian’s family. When people search for queries relating to suicide, we show Lifeline’s 24 hour helpline number to connect vulnerable people with the help and advice they need. Suicide and mental health are societal challenges that government, health experts, individuals, and organisations across many industries need to come together to solve, and we’re committed to finding more ways to help people get support and care."

They also highlighted other features, like not allowing autocomplete on many search terms related to suicide and self harm, that form their broader policy on this type of content online. 

Google works with organisations like ReachOut, Lifeline and Kids Helpline to gain a deeper understanding of how people are using the Internet to seek support and information, and they also provide grants and training for many NGOs specialising in mental health support. 

When it comes to mental health, Google provides the largest unfiltered, honest data set known to man. 

Writing in Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, Seth Stephens‑Davidowitz explains, “the power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else”. 

But what about when those 'things' put an individual in danger? 

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Even Stephens-Davidowitz, who made his own significant findings about Google searches and suicide, conceded that "authorities simply don’t and can’t act on an individual level". The number of suicide-related searches far exceed the number of suicides, and there would be a "waste of police resources" if they tried to locate each person who typed a phrase about suicide into their browser. 

There's also the question of privacy, and the consequences of our sensitive, personal data being made available to any third party to act on. 

Surely, however, there are opportunities at a macro-level. 

Ways to disrupt, slow down, and disengage a user from content that relates to suicide methods. Removal of content that encourages it. Initiatives so bold, so powerful, they'd need the backing of a multinational, multi-billion dollar company behind them.

A company like Google.

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When Stina Jensen looks back on the weeks and days before Keelian's death, she says, "there was no erratic behaviour, there was no anger, there were no tears. I think that’s why it was completely missed by everyone."

Now, her 19-year-old son, who she'd spoken to about whether or not social-distancing measures would still be in place for his 20th birthday, is gone. 

Both Stina and her sister Camilla want to save other families from the pain of losing someone they love to suicide.  

"What we’re asking for is something that makes the person pause," Stina says. "Like really think about what you’re doing, not just 'you’re in this moment, here you go, here’s all this information'."

Keelian was alone with his phone in the early hours of the morning when he typed in phrases about ending his life. 

But perhaps for another person, at another time, what they find could be clever enough to see them through a crisis moment. To give them enough time for the sun to rise, for the light to come in, and to recognise the hope that lives on the other side.

You can sign Keelian's family's petition here

If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14. A trained crisis supporter is ready to take your call.

Other services:

Mensline1300 78 99 78

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

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