The Facebook safety team sees messages like the following every day: “I’m going to kill myself this is my last post ever ill will miss u all…” 1 Since there are more than 37,000 deaths by suicide every year,2 and more than 50% of Americans have a Facebook profile,3 it’s not surprising that people are expressing their feelings of hopeless and suicidal ideation on the world’s most popular social networking site. That’s one reason the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline began offering crisis services to Facebook users in suicidal crisis via chat.
Since 2006, the Lifeline has been working with Facebook to provide help to at-risk users, harnessing the power of social media to reach people where they are. The Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA-NYC) has been administrating the Lifeline project through our subsidiary, Link2Health Solutions, since 2004. The Lifeline is a nationwide network of more than 150 local crisis centers, including New York City’s LifeNet, providing telephone and online help, federally funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Although the Lifeline on average handles 70,000 calls per month, we heard from our Facebook fans and others that many people in crisis do not feel comfortable picking up the phone. Now there is a way for at-risk people to get the help they need the way they want it.
Initially, people who reported a friend’s troublesome content on Facebook would generate a message from Facebook encouraging the friend to call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The new service, which began in December 2011, enables friends using either the Report Suicidal Content link or the report links found throughout the site, to cause an email from Facebook that now also includes a link to begin a confidential chat session with a trained crisis counselor.
Unlike Facebook’s internal messaging service, users enter the Lifeline Facebook Chat through a link provided in e-mail and are then directed to a chat portal. Security and confidentiality of each chat is assured through the use of high encryption technology. Crisis center workers from two centers in the Lifeline network, the Boys Town National Hotline and Goodwill of the Finger Lakes’ 2-1-1/LIFELINE, are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to Facebook users opting to use the chat.
For every person who dies by suicide, dozens of friends and family members are left behind; many often create memorial pages on Facebook to remember their loved one. Along with these pages, the profiles of people who have died by suicide can do as much harm as good. Exposure to suicide, whether through a personal connection or through the media, is an established risk factor for suicide.4 Researchers believe that messages that glamorize the death, or mention details regarding the method of suicide, can contribute to contagion. 5
However, not all comments posted on memorial pages or profiles contain unsafe messages. “There is sometimes tension between the needs of bereaved people and the principles upon which we base some of our suicide prevention activities,” says Franklin Cook, a member of the Lifeline’s Consumer-Survivor Subcommittee. He notes that survivors of a person lost to suicide need a space to grieve. “Communication that mentions the circumstances of a person’s death, which might contain dangerous messages, is only one element of grief people share. They also make comments about their loneliness, memories, and financial problems,” he said. Just as you “wouldn’t host a support group on the sidewalk,” Franklin believes it is important to keep private conversations about grief protected from general public access. He is hopeful that private spaces on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet can be maintained and monitored in a way that meets the needs of the bereaved, while at the same time protecting those who might be at risk of suicide.
When someone has died by suicide, the Lifeline suggests that a friend post a comment that states, “The best way to honor (person’s name) is to seek help if you or someone you know is struggling. If you’re feeling lost, desperate, or alone, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The call is free and confidential, and crisis workers are available 24/7 to assist you.”
In addition to Facebook, Lifeline advises the safety teams at Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and MySpace on best practices for getting crisis support to users thinking about suicide.
The Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA-NYC) has long used technology to expand the reach of our life-saving programs and services. From establishing partnerships with social media entities, to the adoption of web chat and SMS texting applications, MHA-NYC is pioneering ways to utilize new communication tools to further our message and help those with emotional challenges get the support they need.
Locally, LifeNet, New York City’s only accredited, multi-lingual, 24/7 crisis intervention hotline, has led the way, integrating live chat and texting services to its roster of ways crisis counselors can speak with people about their emotional challenges and offer support.
MHA-NYC and Link2Health Solutions continually envision innovative ways to bring our expertise to people wherever they are. Across New York City, New York State, the country and virtual spaces everywhere, we work to ensure that people can get us when they need help.
- “Soldier wrote Facebook suicide note before Springs crash,” Colorado Springs Gazette, 1/7/12.
- Center for Disease Control. (2010).National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 60, No. 4.National Center for Health Statistics, Health Data Interactive.
- Edison Research and Arbitron. “The Social Habit,” (2011).
- U.S. Public Health Service. (2001). National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action. Washington, D.C.: Department of Health and Human Services.
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center. (2006). Safe and Effective Messaging for Suicide Prevention. Newton, MA: Education Development Center, Inc.