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News and Views Forefront Insight Blog Personal & professional perspectives on news and policy related to mental health and suicide prevention

Is social media the new suicide prevention innovation?

Posted on 
03/04/2016

The mere thought of people who aren’t fully trained for suicide prevention trying to coach other people through their suicidal thoughts on a social media platform seems horrifying at first glance. That’s what suicide hotlines are for, right? Suicide hotlines are useful for many reasons: the people on the other end of the call are trained for how to deal with someone who has suicidal thoughts; they are closely connected to emergency services if callers decide to take action on their thoughts; and suicide hotlines do not have anonymity.

Subreddits, on the other hand -- which are specialized forums on the popular website Reddit.com -- do not have trained suicide prevention workers or back-up emergency services, but Subreddits do have anonymity. So why would Subreddits be a good idea?

In a recent BBC article, Felicity Morse interviewed Laura (no last name given), a moderator of Reddit.com’s suicide watch Subreddit. Laura explains that “posters write about their situation — if they're feeling suicidal, what has pushed them to this state, etc. — and other Redditors reply to them.”

Her own first reaction was to take the whole page down, Laura admitted, but she realized that would not solve the problem. “No matter how much we tried to send people elsewhere or discourage people from talking about their thoughts of suicide, it just kept happening," she said.

So the question is not so much whether social media is a good idea for suicide prevention, but how to make what is inevitable, the safest place for people who want to come and talk about suicide. On Reddit specifically, there are rules about what can be posted in regards to suicide:

  1. No abusive or "tough love" language
  2. No suggestions for committing suicide
  3. No "it gets better" type of empty promises

If any of these rules is violated, volunteer moderators delete those comments and ban trolls.

So why are more people using these sites as outlets instead of traditional hotlines to share their suicidal thoughts? Laura argues that anonymity is a major factor. Reddit's Suicide Watch allows people to be more honest about their feelings and situations because others don't know who they are, so they feel more comfortable talking about suicide in that way, she said.

A key point of what's happening in this Subreddit and elsewhere online is that the more people talk about suicide in everyday interactions, including on social media, the more they are breaking down barriers to talking at all — which eventually could lead to greater comfort with talking about suicide face-to-face.

If online suicide discussions are responsibly regulated, they might be a great thing: The more places suicide discussions take place, the more people can potentially be saved from suicide. Breaking down the silence around suicidal thoughts and feeling is tremendously important to suicide prevention in general.

Posted by 
Sydney Sifferman's picture
Sydney Sifferman
Sydney Sifferman is a University of Washington alumna and former communications intern at Forefront.