People usually mean “mass media” when they refer to media, but it is also many small voices that become a big one together. Social media is media. If you have an account, you are the media. Every update, post and tweet affects readers. September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day and we’re massively talking.
We’re talking about how suicide is tragic, and how to access help. Seven months ago, I started an experiment on Twitter called @unsuicide as a peer support resource for suicide prevention. @unsuicide now has about 900 followers and has been a help for some people having a hard time, and shares info with people who aren’t in crisis too.
Existing suicide prevention organizations mostly didn’t have Twitter accounts when I started, and as they did appear I noticed a trend. All accomplish great work on the telephone, but few understood the new medium, and there are transition issues. Non-profits, with busy staff who lack new media training, tend to use Twitter as a broadcast medium to dump news snippets and links about the organization without following followers in return or having conversations. Orgs were not interested in collaborating or herding new offsite volunteers, either. Most importantly, suicidal followers are unable to have real-time conversations in times of crisis.
Due to time and life restrictions @unsuicide has never promised live crisis services either (though has provided that at times), but promotes sites that do. There is a desperate need for secure, confidential, online services responsive to all age groups worldwide. People guided off Twitter, away from bullies, and into safe secure places to talk in confidence. One-on-one chat with trained volunteer counsellors is the new choice of non-profits, over telephone hotlines.
As the pioneer, RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) offers a great online chat line. Others include YouthinBC.com and Teenline, oriented to youth, and this year Lifeline launched a Veteran’s Chat service. But we need more. A site that’s 24/7 accessible and responsive worldwide, with volunteers who’ll speak in text and Twitter and l33t. People increasingly dislike talking on the phone and want to access services online.
Suicide intervention skills haven’t changed. People talk, share support and hope and connect to professional help. It’s just the way the talking happens that’s changing.
But chatting one on one with a counsellor is not the same as microblogging. The crisis conversation is private while the other… The Werther Effect (named after a 1774 novel which sparked copycat deaths) is suicide contagion blamed mainly on the media. Though well-researched, science hasn’t quite moved into the 21st century yet with published articles on contagion in social media. But the principle is the same. You are the media, so you have the same responsibility. Don’t tweet about methods, celeb suicides, and avoid simple explanations (hard to do on Twitter!). There are ethics guidelines for professional journalists, but academics have not yet published updates for social media. I’ve heard it’s coming, but meanwhile, the AFSP’s media guidelines can be applied to status updates and blog.
Then there’s content. Unlike mass print journalism, people who blog about their mental health issues commonly publish entries about suicidal thoughts and dark emotions. If ambulances (or hearses) were dispatched for every post about wishing to be dead, the budget for replacing worn tires would be huge. The Jed Foundation says, “Try to remember that the person posting suicidal thoughts or intent is reaching out for help.” I disagree. Some people want to connect with peers or just feel heard, validated, without having police appear. I’ve been reading and evaluating blogs about mental health for over a decade. Most writers don’t attempt suicide and keeping a blog is not a reliable indicator of that risk.
Suicide crisis services are there for people to call, a voluntary decision, while a suicidal microblogger’s posts have been interpreted as an invitation to call 911. This is a major shift and disconnect in thinking. Sometimes what’s urgent is finding boundaries in privacy and oversharing. While Demi Moore was lauded for her role in saving a life, some people who write about their mental health issues contacted @unsuicide worried about being hunted down by zealous lifesavers unfamiliar with their writing style and the ways of the web. Whether to contact authorities or respect privacy is still a matter of judgment and not policy. From my experience and a patchwork of professional advice, I can tell you that 1. people should be taken seriously but 2. police aren’t helpful unless you already have precise contact info. Calling another country to say you read a threat on a web site results in puzzled reactions. I have tried it, and also tried to contact Twitter support, to no avail. Since then I’ve decided that confidentiality is more valuable to people than the idea of being rescued by readers. Still, the Jed Foundation recommends calling police if a blogger is unresponsive to comments.
Snarky remarks are, of course, also unhelpful. Cyberbullying includes taunts about suicide, which can lead to real deaths. This is not an issue (as much) for offline suicide prevention, and nobody jumps into a helpline conversation to make rude remarks. Online, trolls do. How to combat that… but that’s another topic. @unsuicide is just one little project, its goal to provide positive info, peer support and refer to practical resources using a new medium. It may help save a few lives, but it’s not going to save the whole world.
Then again, sometimes a single suicide prevention message has an incredible effect.
In the springtime, participants at MentalHealthCamp on social media and mental health shared messages of support on my phone cam. Thank you to everyone who contributed, and Courtney who’d been following the conference hashtag #mhc09 and emailed a video. After technical problems a wonderful editor, Scott Babcock, has salvaged a PSA that is a tribute to the spirit of the event and a message I hope you’ll embed and share with your peers. We care.