Recognizing Risk and Reaching out to a Friend on Social Media

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Recognizing risk is an essential component of suicide prevention. Human communication has changed over time and social media is now one of the most common means of interacting with friends, family and people with similar interests. Aside from enabling people to stay connected during deployments or after long distance moves, social media platforms have become channels for expressing thoughts, opinions and emotions. Sometimes, signs of suicide risk are displayed, but people may not know how to recognize them. Understanding how to spot content that may indicate risk is an important first step that can enable early intervention. Here are a few ways to identify signs that your friend is in distress on social media:

  • Joking about dying or feeling no reason to live. Naturally, any posts directly indicating a desire to die or otherwise cause self-harm are warning signs of immediate danger. But sometimes these posts may be masked by sarcasm, a casual tone or even disguised as jokes. Just because there’s an “LOL” or emoji in the post, doesn’t mean that the person is playing around. Often these statements are subtle ways of asking for help and are opportunities for others to reach out, show concern and get help.
  • Expressing hopelessness, feeling trapped or other intense emotions. Posts that discuss feeling stuck in a situation that won’t get better, or experiencing unbearable pain, guilt, shame or intense rage can be signs that someone needs help. IS PATH WARM is an acronym developed by the American Association for Suicidology for recognizing suicide warning signs. By familiarizing yourself with these signs, it may be easier to detect them in social media content.
  • Patterns or changes in the type of content posted. Posts describing destructive behaviors such as abusing substances or alcohol, driving recklessly, buying weapons, or engaging in unsafe sexual behaviors can also be signs that someone is at risk. Each year, Navy Suicide Prevention Branch conducts cross disciplinary case reviews and examines the publicly available social media posts of all Sailors who died by suicide. Many of those posts included more frequent images or discussion of excessive alcohol use in social settings and/or alone, communicating about a bad break-up, a career setback, or a strained relationship with a shipmate or supervisor leading up to the Sailor’s death. Posts about personal stressors such as social isolation, significant health issues, loss of a job or home, or deaths of loved ones were also common.

When you notice something that exhibits suicide risk in a friend or family member’s social media postings, ACT:

  • Reach out and ask direct questions, such as “are you thinking about killing yourself?”
  • Show that you care by listening without judgment and offering hope. Be there.
  • Help your friend connect with a support system immediately. Notify the social media platform’s safety team (see below). Encourage your friend to contact the Military Crisis Line (call 800-273-TALK and Press 1 or text 838255), reach out to a chaplain or call 911 if you know the person’s location. Stay in contact with your friend throughout their treatment to promote a healthy recovery.

The top social media platforms have safety teams that enable concerned users to report content that indicates potential risk of suicide or self-harm, and may even provide the concerned user with additional tools to communicate with the person. Each platform has different response times and resources. To learn more about social media safety teams, visit the following pages:

Many people do not know how to approach discussions about suicide or they feel that it can be too sad of an issue to talk about. In reality, constructive conversations about suicide prevention as well as general psychological health and wellness are among the most helpful ways to break down barriers. When having conversations about suicide prevention, always:

  • Convey a positive and hopeful narrative;
  • Emphasize the importance of seeking help from qualified counselors or mental health professionals; and
  • Avoid using terms like “commit suicide” that can be perceived as judgmental by those who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts or have lost others to suicide.

If you are not sure how to talk about suicide or what words to use, the Every Sailor, Every Day campaign’s new 1 Small ACT Toolkit provides helpful tips. Additionally, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Framework for Successful Messaging and Blogging On Suicide provide additional tips on how to talk about suicide safely. This year, the Every Sailor, Every Day campaign has partnered with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s #BeThe1To campaign to promote five action steps for talking to someone who may be suicidal. Learn more about how these evidence-based five steps can help by visiting http://www.bethe1to.com/bethe1to-steps-evidence/. You can also promote the five steps using Every Sailor, Every Day’s customized graphics, available here: http://www.bethe1to.com/join/.

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