It's very likely teens are alive today because they used social-networking sites to reach out for help.
By Anne Collier
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has 1,434 MySpace friends – and counting (1,417 at the beginning of this week). That means 1,434 MySpace users have a link on their profiles to the Lifeline. This past year, just one of those profiles referred nearly 14,000 people to the national hotline – the page of "Xandria," who has 2,637 MySpace friends and links to nearly two dozen causes from her page (see "Lifeline links" below).
"Our site received more than 128,000 unique visitors from MySpace in the past 12 months," the Lifeline's Christopher Gandin Le told me, referring to the Lifeline's Web site (as opposed to its MySpace page). Even though MySpace donated 36 million Lifeline ad placements this past year, only 13,000 of those 128,000 referrals actually came from the Lifeline's own MySpace profile.
"It's individuals who are exercising the power they have to help their friends and visitors," said Le, who is resource and information manager for the federally funded network with 120 call centers around the country. The support they give callers is free, confidential, and available 24/7, and they receive 1,300 calls a day nationwide (if someone doesn't answer after six rings, the call bounces to the nearest crisis center). But they don't only help people in suicidal crisis. The crisis centers get questions about depression, relationships, loneliness, substance abuse, and how to help friends and loved ones, I learned from Ginny Gohr, director of the Girls and Boys Town National Hotline, which is both local to Nebraska and the backup national hotline in the Lifeline network (its tagline: "Any problem. Any Time.").
Even if the Lifeline were just about suicide, it's definitely a needed presence on the social Web. "More Americans die by suicide each year than by HIV/AIDS and homicide combined. It's the second highest killer of people aged 15-35 [after accidental death]," Chris Le told me. "I wish that more funders and advocates knew how big of an issue this was. I'd love to see mental health and suicide prevention where HIV/AIDS awareness is today [see joinRED.com]. I want to see suicide prevention and mental health awareness sold by the Gap, placed on iPods, supported by Amex."
Parents should also know that MySpace isn't the only social site working with the Lifeline, it's just the biggest (with 160 million+ profiles now) and the first. "The reason why we have a MySpace profile was that, a year ago, we realized it was our top referrer," Le told me. At that time "it was just 10 kids linking to us, putting a banner up on their profiles. We noticed that the number of referrals they sent was higher than those sent by CDC [Centers for Disease Control], SAMSHA [the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration] or any other suicide-prevention service."
The Lifeline "is in talks with Facebook, Bebo, CarePlace.com, and Help.com, and hopeful," Le said, "that a major project can evolve from these efforts." It's broadening its base of what the prevention community calls "gatekeepers," he explained.
On the social Web, those gatekeepers are both individuals and whole Web sites, or communities, that enable both the reaching out and the support, from the informal kind that comes from friends and interest communities to mental health-care professionals. It's genuinely inspiring to watch the development of a new platform for providing support and saving lives – one that expands the reach of the helpers and crisis centers behind longstanding telephone hotlines.
This and my recent article about online sufferers of eating disorders reminded me of a question on my mind for a long time: how to bring together at-risk online teens and the experts who can help them in all these areas of risk – eating disorders, cutting, domestic violence, rape prevention, substance abuse, sexual orientation, etc. A lightbulb went on as I talked with Chris Le: the Suicide Prevention Lifeline pools all these forms of expertise and support. As best practices emerge for the social-networking industry, they might include a provision for links at the bottom of every page to two sources of emergency support: SuicidePreventionLifeline.org (for people of all ages who need help) and CyberTipline.com (for exploited online kids). The toll-free numbers are the Lifeline's 800.273.TALK and the CyberTipline's 800.THE.LOST (or 800.843.5678).
Here are links to the MySpace profiles that Christopher Le of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline said were among their top referral sources in MySpace, March '06 – March '07:
* "Xandria," 34, "aspiring actress and Internet model" in Hollywood, California – 13,992 referrals and 2,637 MySpace friends; writes in her profile, "I have dedicated myself to helping causes"
* Sean Long, 23, "Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist [in] Alternative Melodic Punk, Emo, Screamo, Acoustic, ROCK" in San Jose, Calif. – 10,634 referrals and 6,600+ friends
* Matt Doogle, 19, student in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – 8,822 referrals and 2,387 friends
* Rand Panimosity, 21, in Panama City, Fla. – 3,800 referrals and 636 friends