Suicide prevention in cyberspace

Can a Facebook group prevent suicide?

Posted Jun 16, 2010

The Facebook group "please don't jump" was started by Kimberly Furnell, a Canadian woman who noticed a particular postcard on the PostSecret blog. PostSecret is an ongoing community art project in which people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.

The postcard, with an image of a globe, had the text "I have lived in San Francisco since I was young. I am illegal. I am not wanted here. I don't belong anywhere. This summer I plan to jump off the Golden Gate." pasted on top of the image.

What's great about truly grassroots initiatives like Ms. Furnell's is that they come from the heart. That foundation of true humanity can't be beat. Just reading the Wall posts and comments from those who have joined the Facebook group reminded me that we're not alone, we're inextricably connected, and the pain that leads any one person to consider suicide will not last forever.

A challenge is that this kind of initiative isn't part of a coordinated effort. I am completely impressed that over 6,000 people "Like" this group on Facebook, and hope that they can combine their time and talent to "staff" the group around the clock. One of the greatest difficulties involved in doing suicide prevention in cyberspace is that the Internet is accessible all the time. So, the person who posts in the middle of the night has to have access to some basic help resources in the same way that someone who posts during lunchtime.

Anyone who works in human services, particularly with suicidal individuals, knows that you need to be available pretty much all the time - Saturday night when you'd rather have a drink with friends, during the summer when you're on vacation, or in the middle of the day when your kids are sick. If not available yourself, it's critical to have a solid back-up plan for helping those you serve.

With that said, social media are very powerful in providing an outlet and support for people in crisis. But, these media are a part of a larger infrastructure of support. Ultimately, we have to work together to provide information and resources to people in crisis.

Though it's a little hidden on the group's current page structure, folks did post hotline numbers for National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1.800.273.TALK (8255)) and 1.800.SUICIDE (1.800.784.2433), which will get a caller to a person who can link them to a local hotline.

For those who find the page who may be considering suicide, hotlines are free, confidential, anonymous resources that can be used at times of crisis. I realize Facebook's reach is global and these numbers are U.S.-based hotlines, but it's a good place to start.

I'm left wondering what you think about this comment, attributed to "one expert" in an article about the "please don't jump" Facebook group in the Vancouver Sun:

"The online discussions demonstrate how social media can serve as the nexus of deeply emotional and political issues, and how widely used sites such as Facebook are considerably more powerful in connecting people than specialized websites, such as those run by anti-suicide groups."

What do you think?


Note: I wrote a blog post about PostSecret, titled "America's Big Secret," last year after seeing its founder, Frank Warren, speak in Boston. You can read it here.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Right Reserved