Will the global village have a ‘911’?

By Anne Collier

This is an important next step for suicide prevention as well as social media. Facebook and the US’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline have just announced a partnership that links Facebook users expressing suicidal thoughts directly to live chat with a crisis counselor at the Lifeline. Before, and like other social-media services, Facebook would just send the distressed user the Lifeline’s toll-free phone number – in addition to contacting authorities local to the user and the Lifeline with the user’s city and email address. Some people may be more comfortable in a text-chat format than talking on the phone, so this is an additional option that also reflects increased resources and flexibility (and support for social media) on the Lifeline’s part.

Friends are a huge part of support and intervention in this environment. More than anyone else, they’re the “gatekeepers” of social media, as suicide prevention experts call this important role – the first responders. And, in this case, the truly wonderful thing about this media environment of long, diverse friends lists and news feeds about everyday life playing out in real time is that there are many more who can see that someone needs help. I remember reporting back in 2007 that MySpace had become the Lifeline’s No. 1 referrer, surpassing the 800 number (MySpace had “only” 160 million users then; Facebook now has 800+ million). In a user-driven media environment, “the village” – though now global as well as local (and every measure of distance in between) – is newly important in support, crisis prevention, and intervention.

Friends as first responders

Given these changing (media) environmental conditions, what does “emergency response” look like now? In a little suicide-prevention-in-social-media meeting I participated in about a year ago, we had global companies talking with “merely” national support and intervention organizations. It occurred to me as I looked around the room that, even with the US federal government behind crisis response – even with our national lifeline and all the 911 dispatchers in the country involved – crisis response is a shared responsibility. The other key “responder” is necessarily the people in a person’s online/offline social network. Neither a Web site nor a national hotline can immediately or fully be “there” for someone if the people on that person’s friends list – the people he or she interacts with from day to day – aren’t there to notice. We need to develop a lot of education around how to be there for our friends when they’re in crisis, in a way how to be each other’s 911 dispatchers (though dealing with a spectrum of need, not just emergencies) and get the right help to each other, knowing that sometimes it’s just being there to listen.

Does the global village need 911?

In a way, we’re talking about the 911 of the social Web, the 911 of the global village. It’s necessarily global as well as personal. The Associated Press’s story was picked up immediately this morning by the Times of India, where there are some 100 million Internet users and Facebook is the No. 1 social network site.

The way the new process works is, “if a user spots a suicidal thought on a friend’s page, he or she can report it to Facebook by clicking a link next to the comment. Facebook then sends an email directly to the person who posted the suicidal comment and encourages the user to call a hotline or click on a link to begin a confidential chat with a counselor,” Slate reports. The Facebook triage team also contacts authorities local to the user and the Lifeline with the user’s email address and city. This is for users in the US and Canada for now. It’s a courageous move by both Facebook and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, knowing that the announcement would be picked up by news outlets around the world, and Facebook says it has users in every country. At least EU countries have Internet helplines through the EC’s Safer Internet Centres, but there will no doubt be growing pressure on other governments and international agencies to coordinate crisis intervention work as – along with all the other aspects of life – the social Web makes suicidal crisis more visible to more would-be friends, gatekeepers, and upstanders in all countries. Let’s hope more and more users of social media will see what they can do to be there for their friends.

Related links

* For any young person who’s seeking help or needing to know s/he’s not alone – or who wants to help other young people: ReachOut.com (a nonprofit deserving of our support this holiday season)
* US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin’s message about the Facebook-Lifeline partnership
* Facebook’s Help Center page for the question, “Where can I find resources for identifying and helping a friend who may be suicidal?”
* About a small but mighty conference hosted by SAMHSA.gov (the part of the federal government which funds the Lifeline) in which I had the privilege of participating in Washington two springs ago: “A summit for saving lives”
* “The social Web’s lifeline” (2007)
* About why a “panic button” called for in the UK last year wouldn’t work
* ConnectSafely’s page of Resources for Youth in Crisis
* My ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid’s audio interview with the Lifeline’s spokesperson about this development at CNET

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