Nearly a month before being found dead in her British Columbia home, 15-year-old Amanda Todd posted at video called My story: Struggling, bullying, suicide, self-harm on YouTube. Through a black-and-white filter, Todd talked about the struggles she was having with “anxiety, major depression and panic disorders,” which led to substance abuse. The video ended with a cry for help, a request that would not be answered. Thirty days later, the police were investigating her death.
Unfortunately, videos like Todd’s are common among young people considering suicide. In the past, victims often retreated inward before eventually taking their lives, but today, especially among teens, the Internet has become a place where warning signs are visible. For those seeking to prevent suicides, online mental health counseling has become a viable outlet. Both professionals and loved ones are trying to answer the calls of people like Amanda, before it’s too late.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has long been the highest profile national suicide prevention resource. They have a network of over 150 centers across the country offering their 24-hour toll-free hotline for anyone suffering a suicidal crisis or in emotional distress. While the immediacy of connecting with a voice on the other end of the phone remains a powerful tool in the fight against suicide, the evolution of the Internet and social media has led the NSPL to develop new techniques to identify, and assist, those in need.
Social Media Guidelines
As more cases like Amanda Todd’s become the reality, the need for friends and families to look for warning signs on social media has grown. The NSPL has created social media guidelines for the loved ones of those who may be suffering, including warning signs of those with suicidal ideation. The agency also offers sample messages and suggestions for contacting people in danger and helping them find support.
Focus on Young People
Young people are a particularly vulnerable population; according to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year.
The NSPL has started several initiatives specifically targeted to this at-risk group. A website called “You Matter” has content, including resources where help can be found, specifically targeted to young people. How to cope with depression while also navigating the challenges of adolescence is a focus of the website, and it features content from bloggers who have themselves suffered from severe depression.
As mentioned by Amanda Todd, bullying plays a significant part in many suicides, especially those of young people. The NSPL has joined in with other mental health groups to help fight bullying with the site stopbullying.gov. It offers extensive information and help for those who are suffering from bullying and parents who want to help prevent it. The group even has an app with easy to find information for all involved.
Another at-risk group for suicide is military veterans. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 22 veterans were committing suicide per day, a significantly higher rate than the civilian population. Posttraumatic stress disorder is considered to be a contributing factor to many of these deaths. The rise of PTSD has made the military population a priority for groups working in suicide prevention. Thanks to the Internet, there are plenty of opportunities to reach those in need.
In an effort to help prevent suicide, military groups have started embracing technology to provide services to those suffering from PTSD before their symptoms progress. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers thousands of veterans virtual therapy sessions via Skype to discuss coping with PTSD, enabling veterans to access help from hundreds of miles away. This program began in California and has now spread throughout the west, with the hope of eventually becoming nationwide.
By beginning the conversations early, veterans can better understand how PTSD affects them. It can also help the VA identify at-risk patients and possibly prevent future suicides. Although the virtual therapy sessions are not intended to fully replace the face-to-face method, it offers a fast, accessible way to offer assistance to those suffering from the rapid mood swings and intense depression caused by PTSD.
Military Help Lines
The NSPL has recognized the problem of military suicide and developed special tools for those who may be dealing with a potential suicide. The Veterans Crisis Line is a partnership between the NSPL and the VA to give veterans, active duty, reservists and their loved ones a place to go for help. In addition to the actual phone line, a chat tool also is available, as well as resources for use in a variety of situations. It is hoped that this site can give someone the tools they need to prevent a suicide and find help for themselves or their loved one.
Social Media Tools
Suicide hotlines offer a professional way for those in need of help to talk to someone, but many do not feel comfortable seeking help in that format. Instead, they might gravitate toward groups and communities they perceive as more like them. This is usually on the Internet, sometimes to anonymous private communities but also to their public friend groups.
Seeking Help on Reddit
The Reddit forum “SuicideWatch” has become one of the most popular places on the Internet for people looking for anonymous help. Flipping through the posts reveals people in need of all kinds of help, from depression to those struggling with their sexual identity. The group is staffed by amateurs offering help with little to no training. A sidebar warns “we are NOT a hotline.” However, this has become a crucial battleground for those fighting to save the suicidal.
Although some critics are concerned with the damage untrained users at SuicideWatch could cause, the group has a massive moderation community that is constantly policing the forum. This group ensures that unhelpful comments and those that may damage others are removed immediately. The NSPL is always suggested on the site, but some users feel more comfortable in the relative anonymity of the Reddit group.
Facebook Collaborates With NSPL
Loved ones frequently hesitate to communicate with someone showing signs of depression, for fear of provoking a negative reaction or causing them to self-harm. Recently, Facebook partnered with NSPL to try and overcome that obstacle and get people the help they need.
The social network has introduced a way for users to anonymously suggest a friend seek out resources or help with their issues. For example, a person may see a troubling status, and then be able to flag the user and send an anonymous supportive message. Facebook will then offer resources for help and support. The hope is that by using a popular tool, it will increase access to help and enable people to help their loved ones in a constructive, low-risk format.
A Brighter Future
Some critics claim that the rise of the Internet and social media has made us more disconnected, but there is no denying that these technologies offer tools to help people find support in their fight against suicide. The increased access to information, as well as the relative anonymity of the Internet, makes it easier and more appealing for those battling depression to admit their struggles and get the help they need. As the tools to help evolve, so too is the field of psychology. If you are interested in learning how to help others struggling with mental illness, a bachelor’s degree in psychology may be a good place to start.