On November 7, 18-year-old Ashley Billasano tweeted 144 times, over a span of more than six hours, about the horrific sex abuse and molestation she had been enduring for years. Recently, people from Child Protective Services told Ashley they did not believe her claims that she had been sexually abused and forced into prostitution by a family member. As happens with many victims of abuse who can’t get the help they need, Ashley could no longer mentally cope. When not even one of her 500 followers responded to her desperate pleas on Twitter, she suffocated herself.
Ashley is not the first person to turn to social networks as a last cry for help. In 2009, a Twitter user from San Jose, California sent a Tweet to Demi Moore threatening suicide. Moore replied to their tweet and added: “hope you are joking.” At the time, Moore only had 370,000 followers, but many of those followers saw Moore’s tweet and helped contact authorities in San Jose, who were able to locate the Twitter user and take him into protective custody.
Unfortunately, it is more typical for social media users to ignore, or not know how, to react to suicidal messages posted on Twitter or Facebook — especially when the message is a result of bullying and a teenager might be afraid to respond to another for fear of backlash against their own reputation. Dozens of children and teenagers die every year as a result of suicide because of bullying, whether it starts at school or online. In today’s Web 2.0 world many of these children — like Ashley — have an expansive social network. But when they need help, when they are desperate for just anyone to listen or care — will you?
Knowing how to respond to a suicidal message on Facebook or Twitter is critical to help save lives. You don’t actually need to know the right words to talk them off of their proverbial ledge. However, if you respond to the person in crisis and assure them that there is someone who wants to talk to them, which can be either you or a person at a crisis center, and be prepared with a a phone number that they can call for help, you just might be able to save their life.
Amanda Lehner, online communications manager for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, advises that social media users take every threat they see on Twitter and Facebook seriously and first try to identify their location first. If you know where they are, try to contact their local emergency department and have them respond — the person may have already tried to physically harm themselves. If you don’t know where they are located, the next best thing is providing the person with a crisis hotline that can listen to and talk with the person. Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) is one such crisis hotline and an operator there will direct the person to their local crisis center, where someone will talk with them and help them find medical care. (If the person is not in the US, Befrienders is an international suicide prevention resource that can help you find a crisis hotline for anyone around the world.)
If you do see a suicidal message on Twitter or Facebook, be sure you at least do something to help. In fact, the chances are that the more followers or friends a person has, the more unlikely someone is to do something due to the bystander effect, which theorizes that the more people witness an assault or accident, the less likely anyone is to help the victim, since everyone thinks someone else will react. The more friends and followers also means the more likely the suicidal message will get swept away by other messages in their friends’ feeds. If you don’t feel comfortable offering your own voice as help, or you are afraid you will say something that will further aggravate their emotions, be sure you provide them with a resource that can help them — or at least try to figure out how to provide their local authorities with enough information for emergency services to provide the immediate help they desperately need.
And while knowing how to respond to suicidal messages is critical to save lives, social media users must start responding to the warning signs that a “friend” might be sad and depressed before they arrive at a state of total despair. Social network users are overwhelmed with incoming messages and media, and many users acquire thousands of friends and followers whom they’ve never met and don’t personally care about (and vice versa). When users look to their social networks for attention, validation, or someone to just listen, they often won’t find it because their message gets lost amongst the others. Will you know when your friends are going through a tough time — or even when they hit rock bottom? Social media users need to clear out the clutter if they want to be able to read the warning signs of a friend in trouble — let alone know when to react when they have hit rock bottom.
If you are looking for more help, either for yourself or a friend, consider visiting To Write Love on Her Arms, which provides a list of additional lifelines and resources. Other great resources include the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and SAVE.