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Instagram Takes on Suicide Prevention

Photo sharing app builds in suicide prevention links

A few years ago, it was acceptable to assert that social media wasn’t real life. Now, with social media dictating real life, the lines are completely blurred.

For those who care about suicide prevention, social media has become an even more important tool for reaching people at risk.

Instagram, the app that allows us to chronicle life through photo sharing, has partnered with mental health professionals and advocates to design a response to posts that could be about suicide, self-harm, or eating disorders.

If a user notices a concerning post, an anonymous report can be made to Instagram, and the app will send this message:

"Someone saw one of your posts and thinks you might be going through a difficult time. If you need support, we'd like to help." The app gives three options: The suggestion to talk to a friend, direct access to a local hotline, or tips for getting support in other ways.

If a user searches for a hashtag that’s concerning—something related to self-injury, eating disorders, or suicide—Instagram automatically sends the user to the support options.

It’s great that Instagram has thought about how people use the app and built in support that can be accessed via multiple directions—from a friend who notices a post of concern, or from the app as it responds to hashtags known to be about issues of concern.

As with other automated tools, there is risk of sending a user who doesn’t need support to the support site. But the benefit outweighs the risk, and the language— “If you need support, we’d like to help”—is non-judgmental and just direct enough to let any user, even a person who’s not at risk in the moment, know that someone cares.

Instagram is trying to create a structure to support the 24/7 nature of posts, with staff reviewing reported posts in order to generate appropriate responses. Instagram encourages people to use real-life services if it’s clear that help is needed immediately.

In earlier days of social media, one of the greatest concerns about people sharing suicidal thoughts was the ability to manage a 24/7 response. The openness of Instagram (and its parent company Facebook, which initially launched suicide prevention tools in 2011 and revised them in 2015) to acknowledge that people need help around the clock represents a shift in thinking, a trust in the ability of users to help each other, and a growing partnership between social media giants and resources in the mental health community (like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

Most critically, Instagram is an app that reaches across demographics. Users include teens, accomplished professionals, grandparents, people of different racial backgrounds, and people living in different types of communities. Being able to reach all of these people with resources about mental health gives the app a lot of potential to do good.

With such reach, there’s a lot of power in embracing social media as a partner in suicide prevention.

Copyright 2016 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved