Facebook now offers enhanced support and online resources for users who may be having suicidal thoughts – and options for their friends who care. Concerned friends are able to flag posts that are suggestive of suicide.
This is the story of a journalist’s about-face.
I’ve been sitting on this Facebook story for a few weeks – it’s been at the bottom of my list and my skepticism, which was significant when I first read the press release, grew exponentially.
What I found this week when I finally dug in both surprised and softened me. Facebook, with its 1.39 billion monthly active users, is launching a new suicide intervention tool that might just be the most positive thing to come from social media to date.
Enhanced Suicide Prevention Tool
Facebook now offers enhanced support and online resources for users who may having suicidal thoughts – and their friends. Concerned friends are able to flag posts that are suggestive of suicide.
Safety managers review the reported posts, and if the poster is thought to be in distress, the account is temporarily blocked.
It was this big-brother-like blocking of the Facebook newsfeed that alarmed me. But, Facebook has handled this with warm hearts and open minds.
Someone, Somewhere In the World Cares
The next time the suicidal user logs onto Facebook, a series of screens will launch with suggestions for getting help.
suicidal thoughts as a form of coping, [we] can provide people with alternative ways to experience relief.
Vetted by academicians and focus groups of lived-experience consultants (i.e., people who have survived suicide attempts), the language used in the tool is affirming and supportive. The tone of the initial messaging expresses concern without making assumptions, while emphasizing privacy.
The tool is designed to reduce feelings of isolation, to convey the message that someone, somewhere cares about. Jennifer Stuber, faculty director of Forefront, an innovative and collaborative project housed at the University of Washington, said:
People who are more disconnected and socially isolated have higher risks of suicide.
Reducing Stigma, Encouraging Connections
One goal of the messages is stigma reduction. "In the world of suicide prevention, we know that being connected is a protective factor," said Edwina Uehara, Professor and Ballmer Endowed Dean of Social Work at the University of Chicago. Uehara continues:
People are on Facebook 24/7, so there's an opportunity to actually connect someone who is struggling with a person they have a relationship with. Facebook is extremely proactive in what they're trying to do.
Facebook is well positioned to help a user suffering from depression or suicidality to reach out to someone that cares. The tool suggests calling or direct messaging friends that the user interacts with frequently.
If the user does not wish to direct message or call a friend, other options are suggested, such as calling a suicide hotline or chatting with a crisis specialist. Facebook also provides tips and resources in case people are unwilling or unable to reach out for help.
This content includes videos of personal survival stories from Now Matters Now, a list of ideas for taking breaks from negative emotions based on a longer list from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Support for Concerned Friends
The concerned friend who flags the a post also receives support, including prompts that allow them to send messages to their friend about the concern, to contact another Facebook friend for support, or speak with a crisis counselor.
Often, friends and family who are the observers in this situation don't know what to do,
said Holly Hetherington, a Facebook content strategist.
They're concerned, but they're worried about saying the wrong thing or somehow making it worse. Socially, mental illness and thoughts about suicide are just not something we talk about.
The Global Burden of Suicide
Facebook and its collaborators from the University of Washington hope that the new features in the suicide prevention tool will help users who may be considering suicide to reach out to their friends and find the support they need.
Note: Featured image courtesy of Ryan Melaugh.