Suicide on the Internet has been a concern since the Internet spawned Usenet newsgroups (think “forums” in today’s vernacular) in the 1980s. It was one of the first things I came across in the early 1990s when I started visiting these online support groups and discussion forums — lots and lots of suicidal people are online.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens and young adults ages 10 through 24 and the second leading cause of death among those ages 25 through 34.1 Over 10,000 people a year in the U.S. alone die by suicide in these two age groups, and a total of over 32,000 people commit suicide each and every year.
Diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease kill more Americans every year — but they tend to be older people. HIV kills far less people but gets far more attention in the press. And while childhood cancer is indeed tragic, suicide in a young person is far more tragic because it is far more treatable and preventable — if only people would open their eyes.
So given young people’s overwhelming use and living their lives online, what do you do when you come across someone who’s suicidal and online? Should you even do anything?
Remember, suicidal thoughts happen ““when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.” When a person is reaching out online, it could be a cry for help because they are very close to committing suicide, or because they don’t have any specific plan, but are just in extreme emotional pain. If they could reach out for help in a more targeted way — e.g., by contacting a mental health professional, friend or doctor — they probably would.
People turn to expressing their suicidal thoughts online because it is the way people communicate nowadays — especially young people. They don’t use the phone as much. It just follows that “online” is the place to find a place to post such thoughts.
Natasha Tracy recently explored this topic on her blog and suggested the following steps be followed:
In the case of Facebook suicide threats:
- Reach out to the person and ask them if they are alright. Ask them if they are getting help.
- Give them the information on suicide hotline numbers.
- There is an optional third step here – report the suicide threat to Facebook.
If the person responds and says they are getting help or that they do not intend to attempt suicide, you have done your job. Always encourage they seek professional help and tell them they are not alone.
I agree with these three points — except that the last one is only relevant to Facebook. Since Facebook does not equal the Internet — and more people spend more time online NOT on Facebook — I’d suggest you can contact the site’s owner of where you found the posting, and let them know about it (in case they don’t already). Facebook’s own suicidal reporting system is a half-hearted good step forward (and the one I would consider using, despite its violation of the users’ privacy and inherent paternalism). CrisisChat.org is another good online service for those in immediate crisis — but has limited availability at present. (More online suicide resources can be found here.)
Letting a person know they are being heard is so important and so easy to do. It also helps a little bit with the hopelessness that accompanies suicidal thoughts.
The key to suicide intervention online is to connect the person with the suicide crisis resources in their country or local community.2
Since you may often not know where that is, your ability to actually do that — even to get them to the right country’s resources — may be severely limited. For instance, giving them a telephone number for the U.S. when they’re in Saudi Arabia is not only of no help — it could just reinforce the hopelessness and helplessness of their own situation.
If the person doesn’t respond or responds saying that they will kill themselves:
- Ask them where they are.
- Tell them that you have to contact the authorities to get them help.
- Call a suicide hotline number or the police to report the suicide threat to the professionals.
- Give all the information you have to the professionals including any information the person has on their Facebook page about their phone number, address, current location or anything else that might help find the person.
- Tell the person that you have called for help and continue to encourage them to reach out to a professional.
While I respect these suggestions, they require far more effort on each individual’s part and calls into question — are we are brother’s keeper? Are we actually responsible for other people’s actions online??
I’d argue the answer depends on each person’s situation. These suggestions may be helpful as a general guideline — but if and only if you yourself are in a place you feel comfortable, safe, and with enough time to do so.3
Most people are going to those who might come across the post of a friend or acquaintance that they simply didn’t know was feeling so bad. If someone you know is feeling so bad and suicidal that they’ve reached out to their Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or someplace else online as a means of expression, it’s probably safe to say they need some support. Lend a helping hand if you feel up to it.
Suicide remains a serious a concern in our society. These tips are generally good and well-intentioned. But don’t feel guilty if you don’t feel up to it. We can only be responsible for our own actions — online and in real life.
Read the full article: What to do if a Person Threatens Suicide on Facebook
- http://www.cdc.gov/Injury/wisqars/pdf/10LCD-Age-Grp-US-2009-a.pdf [↩]
- Sadly, these resources are nearly always underfunded and are staffed online with trained crisis counselors who are not the same as mental health professionals (e.g., they usually don’t have any professional degree). So while many crisis resources are helpful and beneficial, some are not so much. [↩]
- If I had to do this for every suicidal post I encountered online, I could easily make it my new full-time job (as I come across literally dozens each and every day). But most people aren’t going to be like me, working in a field where we’re exposed to so many suicidal postings. [↩]