A summit for saving lives

 Insights from a DC gathering of prevention, social media and online safety activists

By Anne Collier

I learned so much last week at a two-day gathering in Washington called a “Summit to Save Lives.” SAMHSA, the US government’s Substance Abuse & Mental Health Administration, brought together activists in the areas of suicide prevention, healthcare, social media, online safety, and government to develop strategies for growing the presence in all social media of information and help for anyone thinking about or affected by suicide. And this was not just about prevention, but online intervention and postvention (e.g., help for survivors) as well. [Please see the links list below for a sampler of the amazing people and organizations present.]

Here is just a partial list of info and insights:

The need: Some 33,000 people in the US took their own lives in 2006 (the latest figure available) – 91 people a day. And last year there was a 436% increase in the number of online suicide crises (people in suicidal crisis reaching out online), the reason for great interest at SAMHSA in social media. The normal range of dark thoughts in human beings is deeper and wider than most people know, I learned, and people need to be reassured of that – in many cases they don’t have to believe they’re in crisis and act that out.

Help on the social Web: The SAMHSA-funded National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800.273.TALK) has 2,000 friends in MySpace, 1,100 fans in Facebook, and has had 16,000+ views through the YouTube Abuse and Safety Center, but that and other projects aren’t enough….

More help coming: SAMHSA and others in the fields of mental health and suicide prevention want to be everywhere – all online spaces – where there are people even thinking about suicide as well as friends who can help them. Because of social media, the range and number of helpers are growing. And even though the very social-network sites where they want to reach out are blocked at SAMHSA and other government agencies, the summit showed their determination to get past bureaucratic resistance. [Fortunately, they can use their cellphones at work – they recognize text-messaging as an important channel too.]

Users make the difference, Chris Le, CEO of Emotion Technology in Austin, told us. And Gallup, which has been doing research for SAMHSA, told us that “thousands of social-network-site users are active in educating and supporting fellow users to prevent suicide.”

Other key risk prevention: I learned that RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), the US’s largest anti-sexual assault organization, now has a national sexual-assault online hotline that goes to great measures to protect callers’ anonymity and privacy. Why online? Because teens and 20-somethings are online, and 80% of all rape victims are under age 30. Why anonymity? Because the vast majority of sexual exploitation involves people the victims know, and it’s vital that abusers don’t know when victims are calling for help. Also: “More teens use the Web to find health information than to download music (75% vs. 72%),” RAINN told us. Other risk-prevention communities: Summit participants represented work with soldiers and veterans, youth, gay and lesbian youth, and native Americans and other ethnic communities.

To Write Love On Her Arms: You have to read this organization’s story, really, to understand what it’s about, because it’s based on the story of a young woman in crisis, as written by someone who helped her – and who founded this organically growing organization on that story of hope. I saw heads around the room nodding as founder Jamie Tworkowski illustrated how people respond to honest messages of hope and inspiration (see NBC News).

Non-conventional media: I have been involved with social media for so long that I forget how revolutionary new media like social networking, tweeting, and texting are and how mysterious they can seem to those who, like me, didn’t grow up even with email. I realized many people think…

1. social media are complex, sort of interactive conventional mass media in which people “get the message [or education] out” rather than the more appropriate approach: create a space and be an unintrusive, caring, credible, presence that people find, “friend” or “follow” and send friends to if or when needs arise
2. online community is somehow something in addition to and separate from people’s offline social groups, instead of a visual representation of people’s offline social networks
3. messaging has to be perfect before it’s published, rather than – in the more spontaneous and social nature of new media – put out there as a kernal developed in collaboration with users. Social media is about creative networking and social producing, not the we’re-the-experts, unidirectional style of mass media.

Next steps: As I listened, immersed for two days in a culture and language new to me, it occurred that these organizations had already taken the biggest next step. They were right then engaged in social-media development. As they spoke and acknowledged each other’s work, they were networking as individuals, organizations, and interest areas. And just as “social networkers” do on the Web, it’s just a matter of giving digital representation to the networks that are already in place. The Lifeline’s pages in MySpace and Facebook are perfect examples. Now they can include links to, e.g., RAINN, The Trevor Project, the Hispanic Communications Network, Indian Health Service, Active Minds, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and other sources of help. In social media, ideas and work grow organically – we learn as we go as individuals and organizations. There’s something unnatural about ideas being preplanned and presented perfectly right out of the gate, as in old mass media. And there’s safety and help in approaching both the medium and each other in this humble, open, authentic way – one that’s based on and represents the respect and trust already in place in the “real world” network. Thank you, SAMHSA!

Related links

* National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1.800.273.TALK
* American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
* RAINN (mentioned above)
* SAVE.org (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education)
* JeffreyJohnston.org (honoring a boy who committed suicide by raising awareness)
* TheTrevorProject.org, which operates “the only nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth”
* JedFoundation.org, “preventing suicide and emotional distress” among college and university students
* To Write Love on Her Arms (mentioned above) – first online presence was on MySpace here
* CopeCareDeal.org – “a mental health site for teens” from the Annenberg Foundation
* ActiveMinds.org – “changing the conversation about mental health,” with chapters on more than 200 college and university campuses
* SPANUSA.org (for “Suicide Prevention Action Network”)
* The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment
* Inspire, which started 10 years ago in Australia, is now “creating opportunities for young people to change their world” in the US
* In the federal government: Veterans Affairs, Indian Health Service, and SAMHSA

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