Googling ‘suicide’

Can the Internet respond to suicidal ideation?

Posted Apr 14, 2010

I began this blog just over a year ago. My first post, "Can Social Media Help Prevent Suicide?" asked if there is an intersection where social media - like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs - and suicide prevention might meet.

I wrote: "There seem to be lessons to learn from the ways social media are building communities, but also caveats. The anonymity and the resultant diffusion of responsibility can leave people who are asking for help via these channels without a response."

I wrote about two deaths that had a direct link to social media - one young man had broadcast his suicide attempt over the Internet and another posted his suicide note on his Facebook profile.

At the time, I said that it was "fascinating to me that these two individuals chose these ways to reach out, but even more riveting that almost no one responded to their cries for help."

As I went back this week to look over my first blog post, I noticed a comment that hadn't shown up on my radar screen when it was first posted this past February.

The commenter wrote: "Is the connection between social media and suicide more complex than people realize? Are victims such as Abraham Biggs and Paul Zolezzi trying to broadcast their death on a stage, per se, for the whole world to watch? And for what reason? What is this saying about the social implications of a world wired together?"

Putting aside the irony that the wired world is probably the reason I didn't notice this comment for two months (!), I am glad to see it now. I do think the ways we are connected to each other have changed, so the ways we might put our needs and selves out there have changed. At the same time, because we connect differently, we are also more disconnected. Over the last two weeks, I've made more phone calls to friends than I've probably made in the last two months, as I've become a little disillusioned by my increasing dependence on social networking to stay connected. These media provide an incomplete connection; you can find out on Facebook that a friend is pregnant, but it's not the same as hearing her voice when she shares her anticipation and excitement. I can't imagine how the family of the young man who posted his suicide note on Facebook felt, being unable to hold on to a real piece of paper, something to solidify their new reality. A status update is not a self.

I've been watching to see how social and other media evolve to meet the new ways that we seek and share information. So I was happy to see that Google has recently made its relatively intuitive search engine even more proactive. At the beginning of this month, according to a New York Times article, "the Google search engine started automatically giving a suggestion of where to call after receiving a search seemingly focused on suicide. Among the searches that result in an icon of a red phone and the toll-free number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are ‘ways to commit suicide' and ‘suicidal thoughts.' The information takes precedence over the linked results and is different and more prominent than an advertisement."

I suppose if we're going to turn to the Internet as a source of information and help, the Internet should be able to respond in an appropriate way. I'm really glad to see Google taking action in this way, because doing so will hopefully get more people who need help to that resource. But, the help itself seems to be the important part. I hope not to lose sight of that amidst this new development.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved