Vigilance is crucial to preventing self-harm, which is why social media has increasingly become an area of focus for those looking to combat suicidal behavior. Speaking up on behalf of someone who is struggling could make the difference between life and death.
Whether it’s through a Facebook status, Instagram story or a video on YouTube, social networking platforms can be an outlet for people who experience mental health issues on a daily basis ― and host warning signs of impending dangerous behavior.
While some posts are very clear, other online pleas for help may be more opaque. That’s when it becomes critical to use social networking sites as a tool for intervention before it’s too late. If used properly, social media can be a force for good.
“Social media can spread messages of hope and prevention ― better yet, it can help people know about mental health earlier so that intervention can take place sooner and we can stop things before they get even worse,” said Dan Reidenberg, the executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “Social media can connect people to resources, give tips on how to handle stress and distress, as well as help build resilience for people.”
Here’s what you should do if you think someone may be at risk of self-harm based on their social media presence:
Look for key phrases.
There are many ways people give signs of self harm or distress, Reidenberg says. Phrases like “end it all” and “I don’t want to live anymore” that aren’t part of a meme or joke can be a warning sign. Even if someone seems to be posting statuses that are significantly more negative than usual, it never hurts to check in.
Bringing up suicide or self-harm isn’t going to encourage someone to do it. The key is having an open, honest and compassionate conversation. You can do this by messaging them, particularly if it’s someone you know well, and asking direct, pointed questions about how they’re doing and if they’re having thoughts about self-harm. You can also leave a comment and ask them if they want to talk.
Don’t be idle.
If you see someone post a status, a tweet or a story with any of the above, it’s best to act, Reidenberg explains. “Stay calm, but do something,” he said. Don’t ignore the post or assume someone else will do something about it.
“Send messages, call, text ― do anything that you can to send the person a message of hope, care, concern and support,” he said.
Report it to the social media site.
“Most social network platforms have reporting options for someone who might be at risk of suicide or self-harm,” Reidenberg said.
Facebook, for example, has a suicide prevention feature that allows anyone to flag the alarming content to the social network. Twitter and Instagram also have warning measures in place if the content seems distressing. The more aware users and sites are of the problem, the more likely someone will be able to intervene before an at-risk user makes a harmful decision.
But one important note: Keep in mind that flagging a post to a social networking site may involve the police or emergency services, which in some cases may put a person more at risk if they’re having a mental health crisis. In that case, you may want to follow the next step, which is...
Reach out to other people who may know this person or a crisis line.
The more support someone has, the better.
“You might be across the country from the person who wrote the post, but a friend might be a mile away from them,” Reidenberg said. “Make sure people know what is going on and find out who is closest to be able to directly reach out to the person they are concerned about.”
If you’re not sure who to reach out to and the person has you seriously concerned, calling a local crisis center may be useful. A trained mental health professional working at the hotline may have advice on what to do for your specific situation.
Offer to help.
Sometimes those who are struggling just feel that they’re alone in their experience. Offer to listen to them, Reidenberg advises. More crucially, let them know about the professional resources available to them. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the Crisis Text Line are both great places to talk with a professional counselor. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also offers ecards for people to send via social media to those who may be in need.
Most importantly, don’t let stigma stand in the way.
Whatever you do, make sure you aren’t judgmental when you’re offering help, Reidenberg says. Phrases like “get over it” or saying you “know how they feel” when you don’t can do more harm than good. Instead, approach them with compassion.
“Mental illnesses happen and they are real,” Reidenberg explained. “They can be treated and people can live a normal life with a mental illness. We need to help everyone understand that these illnesses of the brain are like other illnesses in the body. With the proper diagnosis and treatment, you can get better.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.