Social Media & Suicide Prevention

Social media has become an important tool for reaching people at risk of suicide. Instagram is one of the better platforms having introduced several suicide prevention initiatives in recent years.

In 2016 Instagram, a photo and video-sharing social networking service owned by Facebook Inc., partnered with mental health professionals and advocates to design a response to posts that could be about suicide, self-harm, or eating disorders. The reporting tool lets users anonymously flag friends’ posts that have concerning content. This, in turn, prompts a message from Instagram to the user in question, offering support.

The message is as follows:

“Someone saw one of your posts and thinks you might be going through a difficult time. If you need support, we’d like to help.”

The app gives three options:

• the suggestion to talk to a friend,
• direct access to a local hotline, or
• tips for getting support in other ways.

There is an immense quantity of information on Instagram about suicide. The hashtag #suicide has over 7,400,000 posts. Many of the posts are confronting and the images disturbing.

Instagram acknowledges the risk to vulnerable people and has introduced an alert that encourages users to pause and reflect before they access this information. When users search for a hashtag related to self-injury, eating disorders, or suicide, they automatically receive a message outlining support options. The message says,

Can we help?

Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behaviour that can cause harm or even lead to death. If you’re going through something difficult, we’d like to help.

Get support
See Posts Anyway

Recent research into suicide-related conversations on Instagram found that suicide-related Instagram posts may not be adhering to best practices for preventing contagion (i.e. suicide risk associated with the knowledge of another person’s suicidal behaviour). Also, the voices of public and mental health professionals appear to be inadequately represented on the social media platform.

The findings were as follows

• Suicide-related posts received a median number of 19 “likes.”
• Few of the suicide-related posts in the sample mentioned media guidelines.
• 2.2 per cent included information on where to get help, and
• .002 per cent referred to public education.
• Social support, in the form of positive comments, was present in less than a quarter of all posts. None of the supportive comments were provided by a public or mental health professional or organization.

Reference: Carlyle, K. E., Guidry, J. P. D., Williams, K., Tabaac, A., & Perrin, P. B. (2018). Suicide conversations on Instagram™: Contagion or caring? Journal of Communication in Healthcare, 11(1), 12–18.

Here is a sample of some of the quotes I found when I searched the hashtag #suicide. How would you respond?

Not sad
Not happy
Just empty
I’m Done.
I’m just done
Sometimes I feel like
nobody likes me
nobody wants me
nobody needs me and
nobody cares.
Some things go too deep to be forgotten.

Social networking sites for suicide prevention can help social connections among peers with similar experiences and increase awareness of prevention programs, crisis help lines, and other support and educational resources.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), Lifeline Australia and beyondblue has a valued presence on Instagram providing targeted support to uses who are struggling with life.

Here are some of the positive comments I found when I searched the hashtag #suicideprevention.

Don’t take your own life
It just passes the pain
To all the ones
Who know your name    Justin
People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help.   Glennon
Don’t judge you future based on your present.   Colin

I have been a reluctant starter on social media. I have been concerned that the ‘comments’ will be inappropriate or unhelpful and detract from what I want to say.

However, Instagram offers a format that is workable allowing me to check the comments my posts receive. I believe I have something worthwhile and life-affirming to contribute.

My posts will cover such topics as where I live; what I enjoy doing – walking, reading, gardening; my understanding of suicide and how we can prevent it; and my experience of suicide grief.

I hope we get to connect on Instagram. You will find me at #brickard2018.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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