At a very young age, Leah-Jane Christina Parsons had been writing her niece’s name, “Heather,” backwards. She thought the name Rehtaeh (pronounced Ra-tay-ah) was pretty and it stuck with her for decades until the early morning of December 9, 1995, when Leah gave birth to a daughter who she gave the name to. According to an autobiography written in 2012 that was later published on a website set up by her father, Glenford Canning, Rehtaeh Parsons grew up living with her mother in the Halifax, Nova Scotia area of Canada before moving in with her father and stepmother.
Rehtaeh Parsons wrote that in 2011, she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety following “a very traumatic experience” that “had a huge impact on my life and how I look at things.” It resulted in her being admitted to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax in March 2012, where Rehtaeh was kept for six weeks. “I struggle with coping but have the help of a loving family,” Rehtaeh wrote. “This is why I want to study psychology and became a therapist to help mentally ill teenagers who are having difficulty coping with life. I would like to go to Dalhousie to do my studies.”
The traumatic experience that Rehtaeh was referring to was a November 2011 evening in which she was allegedly raped by four teenage boys at a family friend’s home. A photograph of the incident was distributed among classmates at Rehtaeh’s school, and the teenager became the target of constant bullying. Despite transferring to a different school and trying to put the incident behind her, the bullying continued for more than a year until Rehtaeh Parsons attempted to commit suicide by hanging herself on April 4, 2013. Three days later, her family took her off life support.
“She would not be gone today if that didn’t happen – not just the rape,” Leah told the Globe and Mail. “What made it so much worse is the people who turned their back on her, the name-calling.” In an April 8 post on the Facebook page she set up in memory of her daughter, Leah wrote that “the bullying and messaging and harassment that never let up are also to blame.”
Rape was a traumatic experience, cyber bullying made it worse
According to the Globe and Mail, the alleged rape happened when Rehtaeh Parsons and a girl friend visited the house of a family friend in the Canadian community of Eastern Passage. While an adult was asleep in the house, the teenagers were drinking vodka and Rehtaeh found herself alone with a group of boys when her friend left. A picture taken that evening showing Rehtaeh throwing up and allegedly being assaulted by one of the boys was circulated via cell phones and computers. Leah told the Globe and Mail that Rehtaeh “came home and had a breakdown,” but the online bullying began when the family went to the police and an investigation began. Rehtaeh was receiving emails from classmates who mocked her and called her a “slut.”
According to the Washington Post, the family reported the alleged rape after learning of the incident, but too much time had passed for a rape kit. That lack of critical evidence hurt Rehtaeh’s case, and a year-long investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) following the alleged rape ultimately concluded there was insufficient evidence to proceed with charges. While the investigation focused on the alleged rape and possible distribution of child pornography, the lack of evidence had turned the case into a “he said, she said” scenario.
“The two boys involved in taking and posing for the photograph stated Rehtaeh Parsons was throwing up when they had sex with her,” Glen Canning wrote on his blog, according to the National Post. “That is not called consensual sex. That is called rape.”
“In her case there was the horrendous alleged rape, at least initially, but then cyber bullying on top of that,” Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay told the Globe and Mail. “There seems to be quite a bit of evidence that it’s at least a contributing factor.”
Rehtaeh Parsons: Not an isolated case
The death of Rehtaeh Parsons drew international attention and sparked widespread outrage across the internet. Unfortunately, the 17-year-old’s death is but one of many recent stories of teenagers taking their own lives after enduring a barrage of cyberbullying.
Just days after Rehtaeh’s death, the Associated Press reported that three 16-year-old boys were arrested on suspicion of sexual battery in connection with the 15-year-old Audrie Pott hanging herself eight months earlier. Pott had been sexually assaulted while passed out at a party and then humiliated by cell phone photos students took of the attack that went viral. “The boys savagely took advantage of her while she had no ability to defend herself and then what happened afterwards may have been worse,” Pott family attorney Robert Allard told the AP. “They rubbed her nose in it effectively by spreading around at least one photograph of the assault taking place and various taunting messages about what happened.”
In December 2012, WPTV reported that friends of 16-year-old Jessica Laney said “bullying through social media played a major role” in the teenager hanging herself. Jessica spent a lot of time on websites like Tumblr and Ask.fm, where people could ask questions anonymously. While most of the comments were innocent, friends said that disparaging comments pushed her over the edge. Some called her fat and a loser, one person said “nobody even cares about you” and another asked, “Can you kill yourself already?”
About two months before that, 15-year-old Amanda Todd hanged herself in her British Columbia home a little over a month after posting a video to YouTube entitled “My story: Struggling, bullying, suicide, self harm” that was viewed more than 17 million times. A stranger Amanda met on video chat convinced the teenager to bare her breasts on camera, but the stranger later used the photo to blackmail Amanda. The stranger created a Facebook profile that used the topless photograph as the profile image and continued to stalk Amanda even after she changed schools.
On World Suicide day, Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh Parsons’ Mother, spoke about suicide and how she is still pressing for the Halifax Regional School Board to start discussing suicide with students.
Leah Parsons said she would like to talk about her experience in schools.
“You can’t expect everyone to get the support from home and they might not know where to get the support,” says Parsons. “It has to start in the schools.”
With the WHO reporting that one person loses his life to suicide worldwide every 40 seconds, the mother of Rehtaeh Parson says “I think professionals should go into the schools and talk to the kids, especially where it’s the beginning of the school year to talk about it,”
Parsons says kids truely want to talk about suicide. She reported an overwhelming response whenever she posts suicide-related material on her Facebook page.
“I do know of kids that have gone to school administration and been told if it happened, come back again, tell me again. Well, they just told you,” she says. “The responsibility shouldn’t be on the kids.”
Just as was the case with Rehtaeh Parsons, these stories of relentless cyber bullying are inexcusable. However, it is important for teenagers to understand that they always have options—even when it seems as though the world has turned against them. If you have a story to share or advice you can offer for victims of cyber bullying and our readers, contact us today.