Science and Technology News

Monday, May 21, 2012

Social Media and Suicide Prevention


What would you do if a Facebook friend updated that they were depressed and thinking of ending their life?

What would you do if you observed a group of individuals bullying another person on a social media site? Would your actions be the same if the person was a friend or a complete stranger?

Your answers to these questions may have important implications for how these scenarios turn out. Fortunately, there are resources in social media to help you reduce the risk for suicidal behavior and to get help.

Suicide is a serious but preventable public health problem.  According to the World Health Organization , more than one million suicides occur in the world every year.

Social media, such as chat rooms, blogs, video sites like YouTube, and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, have become important ways that many people communicate and share information about a variety of topics, including suicide.

Two colleagues and I recently discussed the role of social media in suicidal behavior in an article published in the American Journal of Public Health  called “Social Media and Suicide: A Public Health Perspective.” In the article, we examined the evidence for how social media can have both negative as well as preventative influences on suicidal behavior.

There are several ways social media is used that can negatively influence suicidal behavior, some examples are:

 ■Pro-suicide forums offering “how-to” information or encouraging suicide pacts.
 ■Cyberbullying and cyber-harassment directed through social networking sites
 ■The “media contagion effect” where reports of things like a celebrity suicide influence suicidal behavior.

It is important to be aware of how your friends and family may interact with or be exposed to these types of social media. Your understanding of these risks and your knowledge of where to go for help may prevent a suicide.

Social media can also be used to increase awareness and provide information on suicide prevention programs, crisis help lines, and other educational resources. Check out the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)  or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  to find information and share personal stories about suicide prevention and coping. You might also want to watch the suicide survivor stories on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s www.lifeline-gallery.org  website.

There are hundreds of support and prevention groups on Twitter, as well video-based public service announcements geared toward suicide prevention on popular social media sites such as YouTube. Several social networking sites such as Facebook, and Bebo even provide a “panic button” feature to report cyberbullying.

Facebook also works with the Samaritans charity to provide a suicide-alert reporting system for Facebook users to report individuals they believe are expressing suicidal thoughts or intent.

The Department of Defense  is also using social media to address the problem of suicide. For example, the Afterdeployment.org  Facebook and Twitter accounts provide education and prevention information tailored for the military community. Other suicide prevention sites for the military and veteran community include suicideoutreach.org , Realwarriors.net , and the Wingman Project .

There are ways that social media can influence suicide behavior, both positively and negatively. I hope that by reading this blog you have become more aware of the issue and have learned what to look out for as well as what options there are for finding support, learning more, and helping others.

If you or someone you know is in an emotional distress or suicidal crisis, please seek help immediately. If an emergency, contact 911.

Some available resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  is there to help 24/7, or give them a call at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or check out their Facebook page.

Want to talk in 140 characters or less?  Check out their Twitter feed.

Suicide.org has an international listing of hotline numbers that could help you or someone you know.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)  has some great resources available; Take a look at the AfterDeployment.org  website.

Dr. David Luxton is a Research Psychologist and Program Manager at the National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2).

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