There are pros and cons to social media discussions of suicide. Social media can spread helpful knowledge and support, but it can also quickly disseminate harmful messaging and misinformation that puts vulnerable youth at risk.
New U.S. guidelines, called #chatsafe: A Young Person's Guide for Communicating Safely Online About Suicide, aim to address this problem by offering evidence-based advice on how to constructively interact online about this difficult topic. The guidelines include specific language recommendations.
Vicki Harrison, MSW, the program director for the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, discussed this new online education tool for teens and young adults -- developed in collaboration with a youth advisory panel -- in a recent Healthier, Happy Lives Blog post.
"My hope is that these guidelines will create awareness about the fact that the way people talk about suicide actually matters an awful lot and doing so safely can potentially save lives. Yet we haven't, up to this point, offered young people a lot of guidance for how to engage in constructive interactions about this difficult topic," Harrison said in the blog post. "Hopefully, these guidelines will demystify the issue somewhat and offer practical suggestions that youth can easily apply in their daily interactions."
A few main takeaways from the guidelines are below:
Before you post anything online about suicide
Remember that posts can go viral and they will never be completely erased. If you do post about suicide, carefully choose the language you use. For example, avoid words that describe suicide as criminal, sinful, selfish, brave, romantic or a solution to problems.
Also, monitor the comments for unsafe content like bullying, images or graphic descriptions of suicide methods, suicide pacts or goodbye notes. Include a link to prevention resources, like suicide help centers on social media platforms. From the guidelines:
"Indicate suicide is preventable, help is available, treatment can be successful, and that recovery is possible."
Sharing your own thoughts, feelings or experience with suicidal behavior online
If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, reach out to a trusted adult, friend or professional mental health service before posting online. If you are feeling unsafe, call 911.
In general, think before you post: What do you hope to achieve by sharing your experience? How will sharing make you feel? Who will see your post and how will it affect them?
If you do post, share your experience in a safe and helpful way without graphic references, and consider including a trigger warning at the beginning to warn readers about potentially upsetting content.
Communicating about someone you know who is affected by suicidal thoughts, feelings or behaviors
If you're concerned about someone, ask permission before posting or sharing content about them if possible. If someone you know has died by suicide, be sensitive to the feelings of their grieving family members and friends who might see your post. Also, avoid posting or sharing posts about celebrity suicides, because too much exposure to the suicide of well-known public figures can lead to copycat suicides.
Responding to someone who may be suicidal
Before you respond to someone who has indicated they may be at risk of suicide, check in with yourself: How are you feeling? Do you understand the role and limitations of the support you can provide?
If you do respond, always respond in private without judgement, assumptions or interruptions. Ask them directly if they are thinking of suicide. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know exactly why you are worried about them. Show that you care. And encourage them to seek professional help.
Memorial websites, pages and closed groups to honor the deceased
Setting up a page or group to remember someone who has died can be a good way to share stories and support, but it also raises concerns about copycat suicides. Make sure the memorial page or group is safe for others -- by monitoring comments for harmful or unsafe content, quickly dealing with unsupportive comments and responding personally to participants in distress. Also outline the rules for participation.
Photo by kaboompics
Individuals in crisis can receive help from the Santa Clara County Suicide & Crisis Hotline at (855) 278-4204. Help is also available from anywhere in the United States via Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. All three services are free, confidential and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.