Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

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What to do if someone’s suicidal – online

PsychologyToday.com bloggers are invited to participate in The Green Room, a behind-the-scenes virtual conversation between bloggers and editors. I've been "trolling" The Green Room for a few weeks, checking out others' posts, noticing that we all had some experiences in common, and wondering when or if I should take part in this forum.

Last week, another blogger posted a query about what to do when a reader alludes to suicide in a comment. Right away, another blogger responded and said that he had been in a similar situation. A third blogger wrote, "This is one of the hardest parts of this format - dealing with responses from anonymous readers who sometimes share distressing material and/or disturbing thoughts."

As I read through the responses to the initial post, I realized that it isn't just PsychologyToday.com bloggers who are faced with figuring out how to respond to anonymous vulnerable individuals. It's on Facebook, Twitter, any social networking platform, and comments sections of online media that allow for comments. A friend wrote me a few weeks ago to ask how to respond to someone who had expressed serious suicidal ideation on a professional association message board.

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What's different about PsychologyToday.com, one might think, is that many of us who blog are trained mental health professionals, who, at least in theory, know how to respond to someone at risk. The reality is two-part: 1) Even trained mental health professionals are sometimes at a loss for what to say to someone in crisis, and 2) Many who blog on the site aren't trained mental health professionals, but professional writers with other backgrounds and interests that intersect with topics of interest to PsychologyToday.com readers.

So, we're all in it together, this anonymous, virtual world. What are some guidelines for how to respond when someone we don't know - but to whom we're connected through one of these media - expresses suicidal risk?

First, offer a helpline number. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1.800.273.TALK/8255) is a good place to start, as it routes calls to local hotlines that can offer specialized resource referral. Additionally, including a helpline number for a specific problem that the person may identify, such as addiction or domestic abuse, may be helpful.

Secondly, know that your response, however lacking you might think it may be, is important. Because so much online interaction is anonymous, it's easy to think, "Oh, someone else will respond," or "Well, I don't really know this person..." or "I don't really know what to say that will help."

But, as wrote one of the bloggers in The Green Room, "my sense is that kind words from strangers can often make a big difference."

When someone is in crisis and is reaching out through an online forum, that person is alone. That person may have tried to connect with friends or family and not gotten what was needed, or reached a particularly difficult emotional place at a time (say, 3 a.m.) when it seems better to go online than to make a phone call.

"All of us bloggers are tossing out threads not knowing who will reach for them," wrote the blogger who posted the original query in The Green Room.

You never know how what you write can really help someone.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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