As social media finds a greater and greater importance and significance in our lives, it’s important that we get better at responding to suicidal threats that appear on social media sites like Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.
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Failures To Respond
There have been a number of situations where a failure to respond appropriately (or simply an inability to locate an individual in time) when threats on social media are posted has led to suicides and homicides.
In December 2014, Amber Cornwall, aged 16, died of suicide by hanging after posting on Facebook “If I died tonight, would anyone cry?” She killed herself later that night, and was found the next morning by her parents. Her parents say she was heavily bullied before her death. (WLOS News 13, 2014)
Adrian Alvarez shot himself at his school in October, 2013 after posting on Facebook that he was sorry for all the pain he caused his friends and family. The father of an infant son, he was 16 years old. (NY Daily News, 2013)
A woman from Shanghai, going by the instagram username jojostai1012 posted a series of pictures including the lines “I will haunt you day and night after I’m dead”, and burning her possessions before she jumped out of a high-rise building in March of 2014. (Daily Mail, 2014)
In each of these situations, evidence of statements of lethality was present hours before the individual took their own life. Dozens, in some cases hundreds of people saw these messages and nobody reached out to ask the individual if they were feeling suicidal.
In the case of the woman from Shanghai, the photos of her destroying her possessions represent an imminent risk factor that required immediate intervention to preserve life.
How to Respond
The process for responding to online posts that make you concerned a person may be considering ending their life is similar to the process you would take if they were in person or on the telephone.
Start by reaching out via private message (if possible), and asking the person if they are feeling okay. Incorporate an empathy statement and begin to build that rapport.
This process will be easier if you have a pre-existing relationship with the individual, but even if you don’t, getting them talking will demonstrate that someone out there does care about them.
Once you have built up a rapport and began to have a conversation about how they are feeling, ask the question! All you have to do is ask. “Sometimes when people say they’re sorry for all the pain they’ve caused, they’re thinking about suicide. Have you thought about suicide?”
Then you can move into the CPR Risk Assessment. Do they have a plan? Means and access? A timeline? Do they have any previous history of suicidal behaviour or bereavement by suicide? What kind of coping mechanisms do they have? Who in their life can they rely on?
Once you’ve determined the depth of their suicidal danger you can work collaboratively with them to establish a safety plan, as per the ABC Model of Crisis Intervention. Is there somewhere they can go (hospital, friend’s house, mental health crisis bed) for more intensive support than they can get right now? Can their access to lethal means be mitigated?
In the aftermath of the suicidal crisis, you’ll want to help them connect to counselling, case management or therapy to help them cope better in the future.
If you have access to their location, 911 or emergency services can dispatch a police officer or paramedics to provide them with transportation to the hospital or immediate medical care. If you lack specifics, this may be a more difficult process.
Police often work with phone companies to provide the GPS of individuals in a rough area, and this may aid in your locating them if they have a cell-phone.
Facebook provides an option to report posts that are of a suicidal nature but as they point out, “If you’ve encountered a direct threat of suicide on Facebook, please contact law enforcement or a suicide hotline immediately. If the person you’re worried about is a member of the US military community, be sure to mention this so they can provide this person with custom support.”
For all of the failures to help people feeling suicidal, there are some examples of proper responses online, although it’s likely most of these are not published, as the person simply stays alive rather than their death being reported in the media.
An 18 year-old man who posted “Thinking of jumping” next to a photo of the George Washington Bridge was helped by officers of the Port Authority police, after they were tipped off by a concerned friend.The Emergency Services Lieutenant sent the man his phone number, and he reached out. The officer convinced him to meet in person, and after talking he agreed to go to a local hospital for help. (CNN, 2013)
In 2009, a woman used the social networking site Twitter to send a message to the actress Demi Moore detailing her plan to kill herself using a large knife, followed up with “gbye … gonna kill myself now”.
Moore responded to the tweet publicly which led to people reporting the threats to the San Jose Police Department. The woman was found, uninjured, and taken for mental health evaluation. (ABC News, 2009)
In each of these successes, a person posted obvious statements of lethality, and individuals reached out. They reported the threats, built empathy with the persons in distress and referred them to the support they needed.
The Suicide Prevention Resource Centre publishes a guide (PDF) on Suicide Threats on Social Networking Sites which provides a brief overview, some risk management pointers for helpers and social networking sites and some guidelines for both your safety and the safety of the distressed person. (Olson, 2011)
ABC (2009, Apr 3) “Did Demi Moore’s Twitter Feed Stop a Suicide? | ABC News” Accessed electronically from http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/AheadoftheCurve/story?id=7248406 on February 3, 2015
CNN (2013, Nov 15) “Teen’s remarks on Facebook sends cops into social media action to save a life – CNN.com” Accessed electronically from http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/15/us/social-media-suicide-stop/ on February 3, 2015
Daily Mail (2014, Mar 17) “Chinese woman appears to post her suicide on Instagram | Daily Mail Online”, accessed electronically from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2582395/Did-hundreds-people-ignore-girls-cry-help-Chinese-woman-appears-post-suicide-Instagram.html on February 3, 2015
NY Daily News (2013, Oct 17) “Texas teen posted Facebook warning before school suicide”, accessed electronically from “http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/texas-teen-posted-facebook-warning-school-suicide-article-1.1488343” on February 3, 2015
Olson, R., (2014) “Suicide threats on social networking sites”. Suicide Prevention Resource Centre. Accessed electronically from http://www.sprc.org/library_resources/items/suicide-threats-social-networking-sites on February 3, 2015.
WLOS. (2014. Dec 22) “Bullying Led To E. Henderson Student’s Suicide, Says Family”, accessed electronically from “http://www.wlos.com/news/features/top-stories/stories/bullying-led-e-henderson-students-suicide-says-family-18998.shtml#.VNEA6J3F-Ck” on February 3, 2015