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They might have been helping Suzy Gonzales plan her wedding, considering the cheerful, forthright manner in which advice was offered - the do's and don'ts, the anecdotal testimonies, the final checklist. But the 19-year-old Florida university student was struggling with depression and learning how to arrange her own death: The pro-suicide newsgroup provided her with specific instructions on how to lie to obtain the poison she needed, what to cover in her final message and even, her father says, how to time-delay her farewell e-mails so she wouldn't be interrupted.

"Bye everyone," she wrote in her final posting on the day before police found her body in a Tallahassee hotel room in March, 2003. "See you on the other side."

No one, it seems, made any attempt to stop her. Later, her father, Mike, would find a comment on the site from someone claiming to have proofread her suicide note. "How can someone get better," he asks, "when you've got people you thought were friends, telling you your life is not worth living?"

URGED TO TAKE THE LEAP

Tragically, Suzanne Gonzales is only one of many being given the wrong message at the darkest point of their lives - possibly by predators deliberately encouraging them to commit suicide.

This week, Minnesota police announced that they are investigating a 46-year-old male nurse for online chats he is said to have had with Nadia Kajouji just days before the 18-year-old Carleton University student drowned in the Rideau River last year.

Identified as William Francis Melchert-Dinkel, the man allegedly posed as a young woman who was also contemplating suicide and advised Ms. Kajouji on what kind of rope to buy if she chose to hang herself and suggested that she kill herself in front of a Web camera so others could watch. Police say they are also investigating him in connection with other suicides that may have an online link, including the hanging death of a man in Britain. No charges have been laid, and he is not in custody.

Sites dedicated to suicide are not new, but CTB - for "catch the bus" in chat-room slang - has developed an especially grim profile in recent months. In November, recording himself on a webcam, Florida college student Abraham Biggs swallowed a fatal dose of prescription drugs while viewers either egged him on or begged him to reconsider - but failed to call for help until it was too late. This week, police arrested four leaders of the Final Exit Network for aiding in the suicide of a 58-year-old cancer patient in Georgia: For a $50 membership, sold online, the network will provide a pair of "exit guides" on how people can suffocate themselves.

In Britain last year, an inquest was held after seven teenagers, who frequented the same social-networking site, committed suicide by hanging.

The coroner warned parents to watch for signs their children were being influenced by others on the site, but legal issues are complicated. At what point does an online chat about suicide became a criminal act? Depressed teenagers seeking help online raise significantly different questions for society than assisted suicide for terminally ill adults. And, however disturbing the subject matter, the only motivation of many people on these sites - including the one Ms. Gonzales visited - is to find support for themselves.

While those struggling with depression may be particularly susceptible to manipulation - as Ms. Kajouji's case suggests - controlling or policing pro-suicide sites highlights the difficulty of balancing the Internet tenets of free speech and anonymity against the real-world guideposts of moral and criminal responsibility. Even if police and politicians step in, they face the difficult logistics of preventing banned sites from simply popping up elsewhere, and prosecuting cases that cross jurisdictions.

Attempts to restrict these sites - Australia and Japan recently passed laws banning them - have largely failed: A study in the British Medical Journal last year reported that people searching randomly for online information about suicide were far more likely to land on sites telling them how to do it, if only in jest, than on ones that encourage them to seek help.

The content of many of the chat groups makes for a chilling read. While participants may encourage each other to reconsider, they also swap ingredients for deadly cocktails, compare the pain caused by different methods and, usually, bolster each other's hopeless outlook. There have been numerous examples around the world of people making suicide pacts after meeting online through these newsgroups.

The pro-suicide sites expose the negative side of Internet anonymity, suggests Shannon Vallor, a philosophy professor at California's Santa Clara University. With their identities concealed, people make comments they would never make face to face, without the need to suffer any consequences. Perhaps, she suggests, this anonymity - which also allow predators to lurk on the sites - should be reconsidered.

And while the Internet can provide legitimate support, Dr. Vallor points out that sites lacking experts to direct their discussion risk allowing participants to reinforce someone's depression, even if it's unintentional. "Online communities that are supposed to provide support can actually create a downward spiral," she says.

Ottawa psychologist David Baxter runs his own mental-health forum online, and says many of his depressed patients visit the site looking for people to validate their thinking, however irrational. Once immersed in that community, he says, "they are encouraged to see their behaviour not only as normal, but as laudatory."

Mike Gonzales believes it was this "mob mentality" - and specific advice from those who befriended his daughter - that pushed her toward suicide.

"They don't see it as murder; it's just lines typed on a computer," says Mr. Gonzales, whose family is promoting a law to make it illegal to offer online instructions on how to commit suicide to someone who is depressed.

"They can write about it, make movies about it, leave comments about it," he says. "But when they cross the line and actually help people who are depressed, providing material and psychological support on how to commit suicide, that shouldn't be protected under freedom of speech."

In Canada, as in most countries, it is illegal to counsel someone to commit suicide, although the law has yet to be tested in cases involving anonymous online interaction.

But while there may be behaviour on the Internet that qualifies as criminal, Valerie Steeves, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, points out that much of the conversation is more benign - and wiping it from the Web won't erase the reasons why people commit suicide.

She makes the connection with pro-anorexia websites - in which young women encourage each other to purge and starve themselves; the focus on those sites, she suggests, has obscured the social pressures and media influences that tell women they must be super-thin to be beautiful. In the same way, society has failed to teach people that treatment is available.

Education is essential, Dr. Baxter agrees - particularly to show friends and family how to recognize the signs of depressions and suicide, such symptoms as moodiness, changing sleep patterns, lost interest in favourite activities and the giving away of cherished possessions.

SKEWED PRIORITIES

But at the same time, he says, Canada and the United States have found ways to restrict certain criminal or deviant Internet hangouts, even while acknowledging that those sites could be easily accessed from other countries. "To me, it doesn't make sense that we get irate about certain pornography or gambling websites, and yet we allow websites which are encouraging … people how to kill" themselves.

As the sixth anniversary of his daughter's death approaches, Mr. Gonzales campaigns for the new law (to be named in her honour) and using speaking engagements to teach people how to prevent another death like hers. (Don't be afraid to snoop, he advises parents.) Yet he finds it hard not to remember how happy she seemed during her visit home the week before she died - with a new boyfriend and a pair of kittens she was nursing back to health.

A tribute page in her name lingers online, created by a member of the suicide newsgroup shortly after her death. "To me, it's like a trophy," Mr. Gonzales says.

He says he will always wonder what might have happened had Suzy's online travels led to someone who pushed her to find help rather than consider suicide as her only option - a sentiment echoed by Nadia Kajouji's mother, Deborah Chevalier, in an interview this week.

Both families see how tragedy could have been averted: Had their daughters met the right person, they might still be alive.

Erin Anderssen is a feature writer with The Globe and Mail.