“It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning.” If you were to read a Facebook status update from a friend that made that statement, how would you react? With no context clues like tone of voice or body language to accompany those words, this posting could mean, I love my cozy warm comforter…or it could mean I’m so depressed that life is not worth living anymore. Or what if your friend posted, “Another bad headache today—this really is the last straw”…or “I hate my job, but that won’t matter much longer”—how seriously should you read into it?
It’s a question that a growing number of people have to ask themselves as more and more people join social networks. The good news is that Facebook and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (a.k.a. Lifeline), a national network of crisis centers funded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), are providing a helping hand that’s free to Facebook users in the US and Canada. To find out more about the service, I called Lidia Bernik, MHS, associate project director of Lifeline.
Combining the power of social networking with crisis support counseling, Facebook has made it possible for users to now anonymously report any comments posted by friends who might be suicidal. Bernik told me that if you report a friend’s comment, after reviewing your submission, Facebook will send a private e-mail to your friend’s personal account (not a Facebook message), encouraging him or her to either call a counselor from a Lifeline crisis center (800-273-8255) or click on a link to begin an instant chat with one. Both the hotline and the chat feature are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
To report your concern about a friend’s comment, you would take these steps…
Then a specially trained member of the Facebook safety team (a real person, not a robot) would review the message and decide whether or not the status update does, in fact, seem suicidal. And don’t think your suspicions are so out of line—suicide is, in fact, the tenth-leading cause of death of all Americans, with more than 36,000 of us taking our lives each year.
But still, how do you know when to report a comment? How can you tell whether someone is simply joking…or just venting after a stressful week…or truly crying out for help? Bernik, who worked with Facebook to develop the service, suggests asking yourself which one of the following categories best describes your friend’s posting…
With either type of comment, Bernik suggests reporting it on Facebook so that an offer of help will be sent to your friend. She also suggests reaching out to your friend directly right away, either by phone, chat or e-mail, to encourage him or her to call the Lifeline and to let your friend know that he or she is not alone. Bernik doesn’t suggest calling 911 unless you know exactly where your friend is and that he is in immediate danger.
It’s a tougher call when your friend’s statements are more vague…
If you see one of these types of comments, call the friend on the phone so you can get a sense of how serious these feelings are, suggests Bernik. And don’t beat around the bush, she adds—go ahead and say that the posting has you worried about whether your friend might do something self-destructive. If it sounds like your friend is potentially suicidal, then report these types of comments on Facebook and also tell him or her directly to contact Lifeline.
If the idea of “reporting” someone makes you uncomfortable, just keep Bernik’s words in mind: “This is not a case of ‘telling on’ someone. It is a new way of reaching out. If someone takes offense, just keep in mind that it’s better to save a life than to worry about risking a friendship.”
Source: Lidia S. Bernik, MHS, CPH, associate project director, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, New York City.