Learning how to save lives in Facebook

By Anne Collier

In a very sad story reported in the London Evening Standard, hardly any of the 1,048 Facebook friends of Simone Back of Brighton, UK, did anything to try to prevent her suicide after she posted a status update saying goodbye, she was taking “all my pills.” Her mother, who called the UK equivalent of 911 after someone texted her about the post, told the Evening Standard that no FB friends local to Back had tried to go see her, though people outside of Brighton “used the thread to beg her for the address and telephone number of Ms Back.””

Good for whoever tried to help! But the physical location of a social-site friend doesn’t matter. It’s time to help all social media users be aware that they can help, wherever they are. Here’s how: If a person seems to be in suicidal crisis, call your local law enforcement (e.g., 911 in the US or 999 in the UK). If they’re far from the situation, they’ll know who to call next. In Facebook, if the situation doesn’t seem as urgent: “The best thing to do when you see a post or any content from someone who says they are thinking about harming themselves is to use this form,” says Christopher Gandin Le, a suicide prevention specialist and CEO of Austin-based Emotion Technology. Through that form, Facebook will, through its triage team, get fast help to the person through law enforcement and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline” in the US and Good Samaritans in the UK, both active 24/7. That form is in nearly 2 dozen languages around the world.”

“Take all comments seriously,” Le said. “And if it turns out it’s just a cry for help, then let’s get the user help!… The 911 system has the capacity to transfer callers within the system, so even if you aren’t in the same area, please make that call and save a life. Otherwise, [in the US] you can always call the [National Suicide Prevention] Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK. It’s a free, confidential call.”

It needs to become clear and intuitive to social media users that they *can* make a difference – act on warning signs or calls for help and turn bad situations around. This is why I write so much about the importance of youth agency online. Young people’s online contacts and experiences are not inconsequential and they are not just passive consumers of what’s going on. They are active participants, for good or ill, and they have a choice. Certainly, it’s not only users who are responsible for helping fellow users, but we’ve learned from the Lifeline that friends and peers, as in the Back case in the UK, are often the first ones to see trouble signs. Whether friends are being bullied or are in suicidal crisis, they can help, even save lives, to an unprecedented degree – anywhere in the world, not only locally anymore. [See also this video interview ABC News7 with social media security consultant Hemanshu Nigam about how all stakeholders – users, sites, mental healthcare people, emergency-response personnel, etc. – are needed to turn social media into a user-protection tool. And Dr. Irene Levine, psychiatry professor at New York University, in a commentary on the Back case in the Huffington Post, on the one hand shows how little things have changed and on the other hand what an opportunity we have now, with social media, to help friends and fellow digital citizens wherever they are.

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