Why Facebook’s New Suicide Prevention Feature Provides Hope for Parents

A little over one year ago, a teen client sat in my office glued to her phone.  She checked her screen every few minutes, it seemed. As her anxiety increased, I asked her to hand me the phone and tell me what she was looking for. As it turned out, a close friend of hers posted some status updates that seemed sad. My client worried that her friend was being bullied and needed help. We spent that session creating an action plan to help her friend. What if she could have taken immediate action? What if help was built into social media? What if she knew what to do before she stepped foot in my office? 

This week Draven Rodriguez, best known for a proposed yearbook photo of him with his cat that went viral, made headlines again. This time for a tragic reason.  The 17-year-old Schenectady High School student committed suicide. Family and friends are in shock. Rodriguez was well-liked by his peers and often referred to as empathic and funny.  

Did Rodriguez struggle to find adequate support? How could someone with so many interests, so many friends, and such a zest for life commit suicide? Were there any warning signs at all?

Warning signs of teen suicide can be subtle. Although some teens will state their intentions, many show behavioral changes such as disinterest in school and friends, changes in sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating, poor hygiene, and/or risky behaviors. They don’t always cry out for help the way we might expect, and many internalize their feelings until their feelings become too much to handle. Some don’t know how to seek the help they need.

What if there was an easy button for seeking help? Would people use it?

This week Facebook unveiled a new tool designed to help people struggling with thoughts of suicide, as well as people concerned about potentially suicidal Facebook friends. Designed in collaboration with Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention (part of the University of Washington School of Social Work), the new dropdown menu allows users to report concerning posts for further (and timely) evaluation.

According to the latest PEW Research, 71 percent of Internet users are on Facebook, making it the most popular social media site. And 70 percent of Facebook users engage with the site daily; 45 percent do so several times a day.  Due to the overlap with other social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter, Facebook serves as a home base for many of its users.

There’s one more bit of research that needs our attention here:  While many joke that Facebook is for “old people”, recent PEW Research shows that 94 percent of teen social media users have a Facebook account. They haven’t left Facebook behind just yet.

Facebook users share any number of details about their daily lives, from cute pictures of children to where they are headed to escape the cold. Some share interesting articles or look for book reviews, some connect with long lost friends, and some take to Facebook to vent their current frustrations. There is no one “right” way to use the social media platform and people use it to meet their own unique needs. That can even include sharing feelings of depression and helplessness.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among Americans and the highest suicide rate is among people 45 to 64 years old.  With these statistics in mind, this new Facebook tool has the potential to help a lot of people.  

The new Facebook dropdown menu aims to help both suicidal people and observers.  The person who flags the post will be given a series of options.  They can contact the person directly, contact another Facebook friend for support or seek assistance from a trained professional at a suicide helpline.  This gives observers, who often feel helpless and/or unsure of what to do when they see potential red flags, a plan to help their friend.

Facebook then reviews the reported posts.  If a Facebook user is thought to be at risk, Facebook launches a series of screens to provide help to that user, including the option to talk to a trained professional at a suicide helpline, videos that aim to provide research-based coping strategies for suicidal thoughts or other resources to get immediate help.

Many people don’t know how to help when the see that a friend is suffering.  Given the stigma that continues to surround mental health, suicide prevention isn’t a topic that generates discussion at the dinner table.  You might be able to connect a friend to the best oncologist in your area, but do you know what to do if your friend confides thoughts of suicide or depression?  Can you also connect a friend with a great therapist in your area?

Being connected to others and having a support system is a protective factor when it comes to suicide prevention.  That support system might be family or friends in the area, but it might be connections on Facebook.  With 71 percent of Internet users turning to Facebook to establish connects, it makes sense that some of those users will identify feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts in a status update.  This tool has the potential to provide support and direct help to millions of people suffering with depression.

This Facebook tool creates an action plan.  It gives friends and loved ones a resource for immediate help, and it provides options and resources to those in need.  It is a step in the right direction for mental health, and it provides hope for those who need it.  

Photo: Getty