Coming across depressing song lyrics on a friend’s social media status or seeing what appears to be an insinuation that ending their life would be the best course of action can be unnerving. After all, about 800,000 people worldwide, including 45,000 people in the United States, die annually from suicide. In fact, this is the leading cause of death in those aged 15-24 years.
It can be hard to know what to do in response to these posts, and many people fear overreacting. However, reaching out can help save someone’s life, helping them feel seen and empowering them to get the help they need. Having a plan in place for what to do when seeing a suicide post can help someone take action swiftly and confidently.
Determine What’s at Stake
Deciding to act upon seeing a social media post that hints at a suicidal mindset can be intimidating. Determining what’s at stake, or what’s the worst thing that could happen for either party, can help put things in perspective.
What’s at Stake for the Reader
When someone comes across a suicide post online, they may be afraid of overreacting. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between artistic expression, a quote from a song, and a cry for help. Worst case scenario, the individual may take a post seriously, only to find out that the poster was just having a rough afternoon and found a song or poem that spoke to them. They may come away from the interaction feeling a little embarrassed.
What’s at Stake for the Author of the Post
For the author of a depressing status post, the stakes are considerably higher. In one way, the reader’s worst-case scenario is the poster’s best-case scenario: they may have generally high life satisfaction but they may have been in a temporarily dark place that they fully expect to pull out of. The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, is that they’re genuinely feeling suicidal and intend to act on their feelings.
Determine the Scope of Responsibility
It’s troubling to come across a disturbing social media post about suicide, and the best course of action isn’t always obvious. Many people choose to distance themselves from posts such as these by telling themselves that they want to respect the individual’s privacy or that they’re not the best person to talk to the poster. However, in some cases, the reader may be able to provide help and hope to the poster directly. Other times, it’s good to get someone else involved. Either way, it’s almost always a good idea to take action.
When to Talk to the Individual
If the reader is a personal friend of the poster, they may reach out to them directly to ask follow-up questions. Even if they don’t know them outside of Facebook, they may be able to help by letting them know that they care about them or they remember how they felt during a particularly difficult time in their own life.
When to Recruit a Mutual Friend
In some cases, an individual may genuinely feel they’re not the best person to connect with the poster, but that doesn’t mean that they’re powerless to help. They may be able to contact someone closer to the poster to have them help coordinate an effort to reach out to them.
When to Report a Post
Social media provides an outlet for many people to share distressing thoughts such as suicidal ideations, and fortunately, most platforms now provide ways to help someone who shares a suicide post. On many platforms, a user can “report” a post. This action doesn’t get the poster banned from the platform, but it provides a simple way for the poster to get quick help from someone trained to handle crises. It can also help the individual connect with a free crisis lifeline or local resource.
When to Get Law Enforcement Involved
Occasionally, swift action is necessary. If someone indicates that they’re getting ready to take a drastic action to end their life, or even that they’ve already taken steps to do so, it may be necessary to involve law enforcement. It may take some sleuthing to find the person’s home address, but this information is generally easy to track down if their full name and city of residence are readily available. While police officers aren’t trained social workers, many have completed training to handle crises. They can provide welfare checks and life-saving interventions.
Note that this option is generally a last resort, not the first course of action. It’s a valid concern that involving law enforcement can escalate a highly charged situation. After all, police officers are trained to enforce the law, not in mental health care services, and they have drastically varying degrees of expertise in this area. Especially if the individual at risk is a member of a marginalized group, involving law enforcement can be risky. Even so, involving law enforcement can and has saved those at risk of suicide.
Helping a Friend Proactively Address Suicidal Thoughts
Especially for someone with an untreated mental illness, suicidal thoughts may crop up again. It’s not always possible to prevent unwanted thoughts from occurring. However, knowing where to get help can make them less distressing. The best way to address suicidal thoughts is to take a proactive approach. Individuals can help by doing a little research and sending their friend a message with a couple resources they can turn to when they find themselves in a dark spot again.
Some of the top resources that can help include:
- 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
- Crisis Text Line
- Trevor Lifeline
- Trans Lifeline
- Veterans Crisis Line
Have a Personal Plan of Action
Suicidal posts occasionally crop up on everyone’s social media feeds, sometimes from friends and other times from strangers with whom they have a common interest. The difference between artistic expression and a general cry for help can be hard to distinguish. However, both provide an opportunity for open dialogue about the difficult thoughts or ideations virtually everyone’s had at least once in their lives. Having a plan in place for how to respond when coming across a depressing status post can help you provide a quick and helpful response.
The poster likely put up the suicide post in hopes that someone would be willing to reach out to them, so connecting with them is generally appropriate and welcome. Depending on the reader’s relationship with the poster, that may be as simple as the reader letting the poster know that they’re happy to provide a listening ear. In closer relationships, the reader may privately ask follow-up questions, give them a call or even pay them a visit.
Practice Active Listening
During difficult times, it’s helpful for someone to express what they’re thinking and feeling without judgmental feedback. Especially when life circumstances seem so dire that the best course of action seems to be putting a permanent end to their troubles, being able to put thoughts into words can help the individual gain new perspective. An individual can help someone in crisis by listening carefully, resisting the urge to jump to conclusions, refraining from providing opinions, and asking questions.
No matter how difficult a circumstance is, there’s always hope that it can get better. Despite the best of intentions, encouraging words can come off as insincere and dismissive. Depending on their relationship with the post, individuals can provide hope by offering practical assistance with day-to-day responsibilities or telling them about free resources that provide crisis help. In some cases, it may be appropriate for the individual to empathize by sharing a similar experience they went through.
Connect Them with Helpful Resources
In some cases, such as when someone’s navigating the loss of a loved one or dealing with a mental illness, professional help is needed. While some of life’s challenges are unavoidable and there’s not a “fix,” support and help are always available to help individuals navigate their pain or feelings of hopelessness. Connecting a friend with relevant resources and helping them take the first step can go a long way in preventing a tragedy.