Using Facebook to Identify Youth at Risk of Suicide

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teens on computer

In a recent New York Times article, Jan Hoffman writes, “For adolescents, Facebook and other social media have created an irresistible forum for online sharing and oversharing.” Parents and mental health experts share concerns about some of the “dark postings” they often see on Facebook. They face the challenge, however, of distinguishing typical teenage melodramatic behavior from true “emerging crisis.”

Last year, a study found that of the 200 Facebook profiles of college students they sampled, 30 percent showed status updates that met the American Psychiatric Association’s standards for a symptom of depression.  This study also supports previous research showing that as much as 30 to 40 percent of college students experience a depressive episode each year but less than 10 percent ever seek counseling.

In light of the growing number of dark and concerning posts, Facebook began its work with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in 2007. A user can now report content as “suicidal.” Once verified, Facebook sends a link to the prevention lifeline to both the person reported and the reporter. As of December, Facebook also started sending the distressed person a link to an online counseling service.

Hoffman aptly remarks: “While social media updates can offer clues that someone is overwrought, they also raise difficult questions: Who should intervene? When? How?” In college, some resident advisors follow their residents on Facebook. Some therapists even accept friend requests from their clients. Parents, too, follow their children’s lives online, but being overly reactive runs the risk of causing their children to shut down.

Keeping up with Facebook posts and finding the right way to respond is a challenge we face in this new world of social media technology. As daunting as the task may seem, perhaps Facebook is a tool we must learn to wield. For one mother who’s daughter’s suicidal thoughts appeared on Facebook, “having that extra form of communication saves lives.”

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