As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, Sinead O’Connor was reported as missing on Monday in Wilmette, the Chicago suburb where she’s been staying with friends for the past few months. She had left for a bike ride at 6am on Sunday morning and had not returned, so a concerned party requested a check for well-being from the local police force.
BREAKING: Sinead O'Connor is missing from the Wilmette area... police ask for help in their search. pic.twitter.com/JE047UCsZr— Jennifer Hoppenstedt (@hoppenstedtABC7) May 16, 2016
This news, combined with an anguished Facebook post directing her oldest son to go to court and ask for custody of her youngest son, who is currently with a child protective services group in Ireland, led to widespread speculation that O’Connor was in immediate danger of taking her own life. There had previously been a search for O’Connor in Ireland last November, when she wrote on her Facebook page that she had taken an overdose and was at a hotel in Ireland, which she did not name. She was later found safe by police.
There are a few things that are extremely important to do when a person is missing and/or at risk of self-harm: contact police or the appropriate authority, keep trying to get in touch with them, spread the alert that they are missing/in danger so they have a greater chance of being located.
And then there are things that people definitely should not do:
Make public jokes about the person being missing.
So apparently Sinead O'Connor has gone missing? She'll probably turn up in 7 hours and 15 days— Scary Mary (@james_hynard) May 16, 2016
Make negative and antagonizing comments about the person.
What's the betting Sinead O'Connor has killed herself to get that last surge of attention she so desperately seeks 24/7 ��— Maria Travers (@ZonkedZombie88) May 16, 2016
Sinead "I'm not getting enough attention" O'Connor found alive.— foggy memory (@someonesmomma) May 16, 2016
Treat the incident or its aftermath like a juicy scandal.
“Every one of you had better pray I die..." https://t.co/FDk5iRcXYB— Page Six (@PageSix) May 17, 2016
The singer herself has spoken out about how hard it is for people, celebrities in particular, to talk openly about mental illness. In an interview in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide she told Sky’s "Entertainment Week":
“When you admit that you are anything that could be mistakenly, or otherwise, perceived as ‘mentally ill’ you know that you are going to get treated like dirt so you don’t go tell anybody, and that’s why people die.”
O’Connor is a public figure; there’s no denying that. She has 644,000 followers on Facebook and she chooses to use the social network as a forum for the struggles in her life, among other things. But that doesn’t mean she’s any less entitled to being treated with empathy, care and caution.
As Dr. Arthur Cassidy, an Irish psychologist specializing in social media and cyber-bullying, told the Irish Independent, “Those who write online have the propensity to make an compulsive reaction in relation to celebrities especially. They feel that there is an expectation for them to make a pejorative remark and it is grossly unethical for people online to make statements about people who have gone missing, to make assumptions about a character.”
He added, "I've spent much time this year dealing with trolls of celebs. I think we need to remember that words are very dangerous, and words can be very dangerous online.
"We react online because we let down our guard. Once we go online we're saying things which we wouldn't always say. We're not mindful of the fact that what we say is going to be hurtful."
Sage words to keep in mind.