Attempt to raise awareness against suicide & cyber-bullying creates stir against Georgia family struck by teen suicide

by Joni B. Hannigan, Editorial Staff |
The announcement about a memorial for a victim of teen suicide was used by critics of the teen's father, president of Brewton-Parker College, to suggest father and son suffered from mental illness.

MOUNT VERNON, Ga. (Christian Examiner) -- When Bucky Kennedy penned Braxton's List—reminders to Christians to be responsible when using social media—a few months back and then came up with a scholarship to raise awareness against cyber-bullying and suicide, he thought in some small way he was helping to quell the horrific pain felt by the family of a teenage suicide victim.

Trustee chairman for Brewton-Parker College in southern Georgia, Kennedy announced Oct. 2 during the school's chapel service the establishment of a fund as a memorial to Braxton Caner.

Bucky Kennedy, trustee chairman at Brewton Parker College in Mount Vernon, Ga., who wrote Braxton's List, a guide for responsible, bibical online communication, announces the establishment of The Braxton Caner Memorial Fund for the Prevention of Suicide and Cyber-bullying Oct. 2. Kennedy also led a memorial honoring 15-year-old Braxton, who took his life in July, and his family, Ergun Caner, the school's president, his mom, Jill, and his younger brother, Drake. | Brewton Parker College/Used with Permission

Kennedy was shocked to discover, however, that in the days leading up to the observance of World Mental Health Day on October 10, some individuals were speculating online about the mental health of the dead teen as a pretext to take swipes at his father, Brewton-Parker College President Ergun Caner, with claims of mental illness.

The perpetrator of the Internet thread of comments is Seth Dunn, who describes himself as a Christian and an accountant living in Georgia.

Past entries show he is a supporter of controversial and self-described Reformed pastor J.D. Hall, who was the antagonist in a heated social media exchange with the 15-year-old Caner weeks before Braxton took his own life. That exchange was a continuation of a history of vitriolic social media commentary aimed at the young man's father who is a known non-Calvinist.

Dunn blogged about the Caners Oct. 5 in an entry titled, "It Just Keeps Getting Worse: The Braxton Caner Memorial Fund for the Prevention of Cyber-bullying."

Using a Brewton-Parker photo on his website—without permission—of Kennedy presenting an award to the Caner family, Dunn presented a 7-point blog entry to make his case, after admitting that he was not qualified to make any conclusion about Braxton's "particular motivation(s) for taking his own life."

But Dunn, who said he had six hours of undergraduate credit in psychology, and one course in pastoral counseling, still speculated about the mental health of Braxton and his father.

"Braxton may have been mentally ill," Dunn asserted in the sixth point of his blog entry. "[E]rgun Caner may be bi-polar. Perhaps Braxton was. Who knows? I don't. It's just a theory."

Kennedy expressed dismay to the Christian Examiner at the lack of Christian civility in even posting the topic, and felt Dunn's attempt at a disclaimer—in essence that people did not have to read the post—rang hollow.

"If you are concerned about edification, you think about what you are writing," he said.

"Braxton reminds me life and death is in the power of the tongue," Kennedy said.

"The power to tweet, power to post, is really there and we don't live life in a vacuum," he added. "For the Christian world at large, what is happening on social media is that it exacerbates our dysfunction if we don't get it right. Social media gives us the opportunity to show the attitude of Christ. What we are doing is destroying believers."

Kennedy told the Examiner that the idea for Braxton's List—outlining "practical, biblical ways for how believers ought to treat one another"—came from a conversation with the teen's mother at the young man's memorial service in August.

"I didn't collaborate with anybody on this," Kennedy said. "The whole idea of the list came from a conversation I had with Jill."

Braxton was the inspiration for the list, Kennedy noted, but his overall concern was about some Christian bloggers who appear to ignore biblical principles when dealing with fellow believers as if God did not anticipate social media when He spoke about behavior in Scripture.

Mental health therapist Kathleen Shannon, licensed in Washington state but living in North Carolina, said she became aware of the conflict between the Caner family, Seth Dunn, blogger pastor J.D. Hall, and others just after Braxton's death in August.

What she saw left her "livid."

Shannon told the Examiner that Hall—who had in August suggested he would cease his focus on the Caners—promoted Dunn's blog post, using the hashtag #BraxtonsList.

Hall called Kennedy's efforts a "shameless capitalization of tragedy" in the tweet.

In the comment section of Dunn's blog, Hall said those using the hashtag #BraxtonsList are using the younger Caner "as a human shield to protect his father, uncle and those with integrity problems from criticism."

Two days later, Hall, pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Sidney, Mont. tweeted from Pulpit & Pen that Dunn had been added to the list of contributors for that ministry.

Calling Dunn's blog entry "inhumane and not intellectually respectable," Shannon noted the Caner family is going through "complicated" grief.

"Suicide survivors, particularly when the person completing the suicide is a child, have much more to process, and this article was at best insensitive, and could impede the healing. J.D. Hall tagging it with #BraxtonsList is making a mockery of a tragedy in which he took part," Shannon said.

Dunn commenting on a suicide victim's mental state is troublesome as well for Shannon who said: "It isn't for the 'armchair counselor' ... to throw out a diagnosis. It reminds me of the old advertisement of 'I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV' and then the character proceeds to dispense medical advice."

Shannon said in her professional opinion Braxton's List is a practical solution to many of life's "real" situations, but especially important for virtual communication.

"I love it. It provides a framework and expected 'code of ethics' to those who would want to interact with others online," she said. Additionally, scholarships and other awards can be a "rapid avenue to self-healing."

"The memorial scholarship is a way for the Caner family to be able to express their grief, and can be a vital part of the healing process; because this scholarship is a blessing to others," Shannon said.

Switching gears, Shannon, who does not profess to be a Christian, but is familiar with Christian views, said she is very concerned for her own son should she allow him to attend Christian functions or interact with Christians "in any way."

"My mama bear instincts rose up. As a mom this terrifies me. That could be any kid. That could be my kid," she said. "And inasmuch as I heard 'look to God, don't look to man,' it kept sounding like a really despicable excuse for deplorable behavior and abuse in the Christian world.

Shannon shared that her son is not active on social media, yet, and that she wants him to be safe when he does start.

"I have a reasonable expectation of psychological safety from society, and I communicate this to my child. He does not need to be anxious going into the world, cyber included, and I give him every precaution I can without being a 'helicopter parent.' That isn't healthy."