I recall reading a story last year about two teenage students from a town in Denver, both of whom lost their lives to suicide within two days of one-another.
In both cases, the students had made their intentions known on social media.
Countless similar stories can be found online. In many cases, such as the one above, people did attempt to reach out to those in need. In other cases, online cries for help were ignored or not taken seriously.
Teen Suicide Rates are Rising
Between 2010 and 2017, the number of teenage suicides in England and Wales increased by 67%.
In London, the figure is rising at an even greater rate, while a similar trend is occurring on the other side of the Atlantic, with the suicide rate of children and teenagers between 10 and 17 years old increasing by 70% in a decade since 2006.
The Role of Social Media in Suicide Prevention
While many believe social media is at least partially responsible for the rising rates of teenage suicides – due to matter such as cyber-bullying – it can be used as an effective tool for suicide prevention. This goes for any user of social media, not just teenagers.
The major platforms themselves are actively engaged in suicide prevention, but much of the onus is on individuals to respond should they encounter a post pertaining to suicide from a friend, family member, or anybody else.
Contacting the Emergency Services
First-and-foremost, you should not hesitate in contacting the emergency services if you believe someone’s life is in imminent danger. Any indications that someone is preparing to take their own life should be treated as a medical emergency. If need-be, contact closer friends or relatives of the person in question as well, to ensure help can arrive as quickly as possible.
In such situations, particularly if the person has made their intentions clear, the danger is obvious.
However, it is not always so easy to spot when a person needs help, or to differentiate between someone simply ‘venting’ after having a bad day and a more serious mental health issue.
The Warning Signs
Spotting the signs that a person may be contemplated suicide based on their social media activity can be difficult, given the absence of body language or tone of voice in many posts, especially those that are purely text rather than photos or videos.
However, there are some warning signs you can look out for.
While tone of voice by not be present in a lot of social media posts, you will probably be familiar with the tone your friends and family members take on social media. A negative change in tone may be subtle or happen gradually over time, but it should not be overlooked. If you start to notice more posts that strike you as odd or out-of-character, it could be that person’s way of expressing negative emotions.
- Signs of Anger or Lashing Out
“Anger turned inward” is how Sigmund Freud described depression, a characterisation that is debated to this day. What seems beyond debate is that anger often coexists with depression, and that it can be outward as well as inward. Therefore, if you see someone reacting angrily or lashing out online, it could suggest they are struggling mentally. Again, this should be particularly alarming if it is out-of-character for that person.
- Sad Posts
Of course, sadness is the most obvious emotion to link with depression. When it comes to social media, this could be shown in sharing sad memes and pictures, or posts discrediting their own self-worth. Frequent posts of this nature could be a cry for help and should not be ignored.
It is also worth paying attention to the time of day the person is posting, as insomnia is a common symptom of depression. As such, regular posts late at night or in the early hours may be another warning sign.
Reaching Out to Someone You Are Concerned About
If you are concerned about someone’s wellbeing, raising your concerns with them is usually far from easy and must be done sensitively. However, many people struggle to talk about their mental wellbeing, be it through embarrassment, fear of ridicule, or any other reason perpetuated by the stigma surrounding the topic.
If you are the one to raise the issue, it can help break that barrier immediately.
There is also the myth that talking about suicide is a bad idea and could encourage a person to take their own life, which has contributed in making suicide taboo subject. Again, being the one to raise the topic, if appropriate, can help make a person feel more comfortable in discussing their concerns.
This article from Helpguide.org does a superb job of explaining the steps you can take in opening the dialogue.
Contacting Someone Closer to the Person
You do not have to be a close friend or family member to raise your concerns with a person. Given that we are discussing social media, you can even be the other side of the world.
However, you may ultimately decide that you are not the best person to speak directly to the individual you are concerned about.
That, however, does not mean you are unable to help.
Contacting someone closer to them – either physically or emotionally – clearly and considerately explaining why you are concerned, may encourage that person to bring the issue up. Perhaps they too have noticed the signs but were unsure whether to address them. Your message could be the push they need to do so.
You Can Help a Person in Need
It is quite likely that nothing in this article is new or surprising to you. However, many cries for help on social media go ignored. In the most tragic of cases, lives are needlessly lost. So, if you do find yourself in a situation where a friend or loved one is using social media in such a way, just remember: you can be the one to help. You may even save a life.