What to Do If You See Someone Posting Thoughts of Suicide Online

When one social media group manager read posts from a member who was thinking about taking their own life, she turned to experts for advice. Here’s what they told her.

Knowing how to respond and facilitate warm handoffs when a person is posting thoughts of suicide online can help direct people to the support they need. Getty Images

“I feel depressed, alone, hopeless, and suicidal. I honestly don’t know what to do.”

Those words stared back at me from my screen, speaking to a crisis I didn’t know how to handle.

They were written by one of the 2,000 members of a closed social media group I manage — someone I didn’t know personally, and wasn’t sure how to help.

The message hit me hard.

I lost a friend to suicide in 2016. He was one of 45,000 lives lost to suicide that same year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source.

I’d been talking to him the night it happened, texting less than an hour before he was gone. And I’d been clueless. Completely oblivious to how much pain he was in.

Three years later, thinking about his death still makes me feel like I’m drowning.

So, seeing that post on a page I was responsible for, seeing the mention of that word that still makes me feel so helpless, sent me into a panic.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, though I did my best. Yet, I ultimately felt I didn’t do as good of a job as I could have.

How best to respond to suicidal posts online

In the days that followed, I went into research mode and learned I wasn’t alone. All across the internet, people were struggling with how to deal with mentions of suicide by friends, family, and strangers in online settings.

I learned that more than 1 percentTrusted Source of Americans will make a plan for suicide each year. In my small online community, that meant as many as 40 of the members could be at risk in the next year alone.

I had to find a better way to address these concerns in the future.

April Foreman, PhD, executive committee member of the American Association of Suicidology and co-founder of Suicide Prevention and Social Media (SPSM), recently told Healthline that the anonymity and distance afforded by the internet can sometimes make people more likely to open up about things they’d have a harder time speaking about face to face.

“You also have to remember that the younger generations are digital natives,” she explained. “And we’ve worked so hard to destigmatize suicidality. We only started talking about the stigma three or four decades ago. We’ve come a really long way.”

All that work means those digital natives might feel safer disclosing their suicidality online. But when it comes to how to handle those disclosures, Foreman explained that there’s not necessarily one right response.

“We don’t really have great evidence pointing to one thing or another that works best. But whether you’re having these conversations online or in person, one of the things we do typically recommend is something called a gatekeeper training,” she said.

Gatekeeper training, I learned, includes short courses people can take that help them recognize the warning signs of suicide and how best to respond when they encounter them. (I even found one such training being offered directly through my state.)

The potential benefits of gatekeeper trainings have been studied in both militaryTrusted Source and school settingsTrusted Source, and Foreman says she highly recommends it.

“Feeling suicidal or thinking about suicide is actually very common. We want people to have the tools to listen in a calm, nonjudgmental way, and to know how to respond and facilitate warm handoffs,” she said.

The do’s and don’ts of responding to suicidal posts

Licensed clinical psychologist Joel Dvoskin, PhD, specializes in managing the risk of suicide.

He recently told Healthline that when someone mentions feeling suicidal, “You should always respond beneficently. But the form of beneficent response is going to vary tremendously depending on the circumstances.”

He said that for some people, that may simply mean a supportive response to a post made on social media. For others, it could be calling the person in crisis, or getting in your car to go be with them.

“Find a way to be helpful and avoid making it worse,” he said. “Look for ways to help if you can.”

When asked what words or actions might actually make things worse, he said, “Denying what the person is feeling is a big one. If someone expresses despair, and your first reaction is to say, ‘oh, there’s nothing wrong with you, just buck up,’ that could definitely make things worse.”

Beyond that, he mentioned indifference, cruelty, and a lack of kindness — anything that might reinforce the despair the person was feeling in the first place.

When someone mentions feeling suicidal, you should always respond beneficently. Getty Images
The challenges with online disclosures

But what if you don’t actually know the person in crisis in real life?

How do you respond if you don’t know someone well enough to pick up the phone and call, or if you’re lacking the option of driving to their home yourself?

Dvoskin said that if you truly fear someone’s life may be in danger, you can always call the police and request a welfare check.

That may require doing a bit of social media stalking to get an idea of what state they live in, but he said that, “Even if we can only temporarily prevent the suicide, if it buys time, it may give the person a chance to think of non-suicide options.”

While there’s some controversy about the risks versus benefits of calling 911 when it comes to mental health concerns, Dvoskin believes most police officers are doing a great job of responding to these types of calls.

“Does that mean they are never going to get it wrong? Of course not. Some police are better than others. But in general, it’s been my experience that the police who respond to situations like this are very skillful and save lives,” he explained.

Foreman agrees, but with a caveat.

“It’s a valid fear that bringing in police could make things worse,” she said. “There are definitely some law enforcement teams that are better trained than others. If you call 911, you don’t know if the person responding is going to be someone trained in mental healthcare.”

She called it a “real shame” that we’ve made law enforcement the emergency mental health response team. “They’re law officers, not clinicians, after all.”

But until the public insists on a high-quality mental health crisis center, she said, “What I would say is, what makes you so sure that not doing anything is better? What makes you think you can handle the situation better than an emergency response team?”

Still, she said there are some populations who may fare better without police involvement.

“Oppression is really harmful if you’re transgender, for instance,” she explained. “And people who are transgender can be victimized by law enforcement. So in the trans community, calling law enforcement is a much riskier thing.”

Foreman also offered advice for those who may feel confused or conflicted about calling the police for help when they see someone posting thoughts of suicide on social media.

“What I would say is that if you make the decision to not call law enforcement, never make that decision alone. No professional makes that call alone, so no private citizen should either,” she said.

Doing better

Beyond the gatekeeper training, Foreman recommended something a little more involved for community moderators who may deal with more disclosures of suicidal thoughts than others.

ASIST is a two-day interactive workshop in “suicide first aid.” Grants may be available, and it’s sometimes offered through local crisis centers.

This is the same training taken by nurses, firefighters, and members of the community who may come in more frequent contact with people in crisis.

From there, she recommends community admins develop a plan for how to moderate suicide within their group.

“I wouldn’t dare tell you how to do that,” she said, “because all the social platforms are so different. Based on the size of your community or the resources you have, you’re going to come up with what you think is best.”

However, she did say the American Association of Suicidology can review and advise on reaction plans for those who manage online groups.

For my part, I reached out to that member of my community shortly after getting off my calls with Foreman and Dvoskin. I apologized for any missteps I may have made in handling the original post, and asked how they were doing.

They graciously accepted my apology, telling me they totally understood why I’d responded the way I had. And then they admitted they’d spent the entire day before in the hospital after a suicide attempt.

I was crushed I wasn’t able to offer better support when they needed it, but thankful their attempt was nonfatal. I was also grateful to learn that this person was getting the help they needed.

I posted to my own community shortly thereafter, admitting to my shortcomings when it comes to this subject and promising to do better in the future.

I’ve made plans to take gatekeeper training and I’ve encouraged any other interested members in our group to do the same.

We’ve also begun working together as a group on how to better address suicidal posts in the future if we encounter them.

However, as an individual, I’m going to continue doing my best to learn and grow in this area.

The next time someone tells me about their struggle with suicidal thoughts — either online or in person — I want to be prepared and know how I can best respond and be supportive.

Moving forward, I’m going to do better.

I hope sharing my story will help others who find themselves in similar situations find the tools they need to do the same.

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