Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Facebook as a Mental Health Screening Tool?

Can social media make us better listeners?

Lately, I just haven't been that into Facebook.

Admitting that seems like a betrayal, as I've spent a lot of time over the past three years praising the social networking site's potential power to help prevent suicide. But, lately I've struggled with whether Facebook promotes authenticity or creates a competition for who has the best, most "Facebook-able" life.

But, that's me, an adult, someone who self-edits. Like other adults, I'm acutely aware that what I say on Facebook reflects on me, so I pick and choose what I share.

So, what's it like for people who don't have such an active internal editor? Teenagers, the perfect test sample, are providing some answers.

In a New York Times article last week, reporter Jan Hoffman explored the way that teens and young adults are using Facebook now.

For many, the oversharing Facebook inspires, so often questioned and seen as a negative, can actually draw needed attention to someone in crisis.

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It's interesting to observe this evolution, from the cleverly coined phrase "Face your problems, don't Facebook them," to a cautious embrace of one of Facebook's defining features: The vast amount of personal information shared with countless contacts at all times of the day and night.

Facebook, quite unintentionally, can serve as an unscientific screening tool, identifying teens or young adults who may be at risk for depression or suicide.

But, Facebook as a suicide prevention tool counts on more than just taking notice off a concerning status update. It counts on us—humans—to do what only humans can do: Pay attention, do some virtual listening, and interact with authenticity and care.

The stories in Hoffman's article that struck me as most meaningful were those that increased in-person connection—like a university residence hall adviser reaching out to students who had posts that concerned her, or a mother who quite literally saved her daughter from a suicide attempt because of a Facebook message.

Facebook can be the means of communication that makes a difference. But, it's still up to us to be the difference.

When we don't respond to a post of concern—from a post that looks out of the ordinary, to one that is more clearly an expression of sadness—we leave friends in a virtual lurch.

Imagine telling a friend in person about fear, anxiety, or sadness. What if they looked back at you with nothing to say, or worse, walked away? The Facebook equivalent is not leaving a comment. As Hoffman points out, silence, even on Facebook, "inadvertently may be taken as the most hurtful response."

What can you say that's better than saying nothing at all?

"I'm thinking of you."

"Hope everything's okay."

"I'm here for you if you need me."

In the virtual world, even just a few words can count for a lot.

 

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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