MH@H Mental Health, Suicide Talk

Mental Health Crisis–What Goes Too Far on Social Media?

Mental health crisis and what goes too far on social media?
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Is there a limit to what’s ok to post on social media?  I’m not thinking about trolling and other such nastiness, but rather about widely broadcasting messages about being suicidal.

I’m not a huge social media user, but I do spend some time on Twitter.  I follow around 2500 accounts, pretty much all of which are mental health-related.  And it’s not all that unusual to see a tweet from someone who is actively suicidal, and the post conveys a sense of imminent risk to act.

I have such mixed feelings about this.  Yes, I think it’s important for people to talk about their mental health, including thoughts of suicide.  I know of one particular instance when a social media post by someone who had made an attempt led to first responders getting to the person’s home in time to save them.  So absolutely there can be value, and I don’t want to detract from that at all.

Still, it concerns me when posting on social media (and I’m referring to broadcast posts rather than direct messages) is chosen as the way to reach out for help when someone is feeling immediately suicidal.  I say immediately suicidal because I think there’s a big difference between someone posting that someone has been struggling with suicidal and someone posting that they won’t be alive tomorrow.  There’s probably also a difference between a blog post where a broader context is given and a short social media post that’s not long enough to place the suicidal statement in a proper context.

I think it’s a good idea for all of us who experience thoughts of suicide at one time or another to formulate some sort of crisis plan.  That can be something more formalized and written out in the form of a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) or something along those lines, or it can be something more informal in the back of our minds.  I don’t think broadcasting on social media should not be on the list of options when things reach crisis stage.  Crisis support needs to happen on a one-to-one basis, not on a one to several thousand basis.

If crisis messages do get put out there for the world to see on social media, that can have unintended negative consequences.  If the post gets lost in the massive shuffle of social media and no one responds, the poster may think no one cares and end up feeling even more alone.  But the biggest issue is the potential to trigger others.  If the poster is well connected in the online mental health community, there is an even greater potential to trigger others.

Also, what are readers of the social media post to do?  Perhaps some readers will know enough about the poster to inform emergency services, but most will not, leaving them powerless to do anything concrete to help.  I’ve seen suicidal posts and thought that I just didn’t have the capacity to take that on, but it’s hard not to feel a sense of guilt just scrolling on by a post like that.

At the same time, during periods of high suicidality, rational thinking is not operating at its best.  That’s where a crisis plan can really be helpful, since it’s thought out ahead of time when rational thinking is accessible.

It made the news not too long ago when comedian Pete Davidson posted a message on Instagram implying that he was suicidal.  “I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore,” he wrote. “I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”  In this case, he was well known and when readers contacted police they were able to do a wellness check, and he performed on Saturday Night Live a few hours later.

Pete Davidson has a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD).  I’ve noticed on my Twitter feed that many of the people posting about suicidality with imminent intent have BPD.  I think there are a few factors of the illness that likely play into this.  The combination of recurring suicidal ideation, rapid shifts in mood, and impulsivity can produce intense spikes in suicidal thinking.  As a very broad generalization, in mood disorders, the suicidal thinking is often more sustained than having abrupt spikes.  I suspect that it’s these kinds of spikes that are most likely to result in these kinds of social media posts.

To take a brief detour from suicidality, I also believe very strongly that graphic images of self-harm do not belong on social media.  That can be profoundly triggering to so many people, and that’s not ok.  There was a post on Twitter not too long ago with a very graphic image, which caused quite a stir among other members of the mental health community who were very triggered.  There are many ways to reach out for help, but no matter how desperate someone is, a blood-filled picture on for thousands to see on Twitter is not the right way to get help.

Desperate times call for effective pre-planned measures.  When things get to the crisis stage, it’s time to reach for crisis-appropriate resources that can provide concrete, meaningful assistance in a timely manner.  As a mental health community we should be supporting each other in opening up and accessing effective help earlier rather than later, and if at all possible we should try to avoid doing things that will end up multiplying our pain by triggering others.

Straight talk on suicide - graphics of phoenix and semicolon

The Straight Talk on Suicide page covers a variety of topics related to suicide, including getting help and safety planning, from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

31 thoughts on “Mental Health Crisis–What Goes Too Far on Social Media?”

  1. Excellent post topic. I’m not a huge social media freak, but I have seen post in the past that concerned me as well. When I have ever seen such post, I have provided the suicide hotline and/or warm line. This of course was something I provided a person that I did not have a real connection to, such as family or friends.
    However, If someone was to post that they were immediately suicidal on a social network, I would try to find out more about that person by their personal contacts and area in which they reside, and push to have the authorities come to their aid.

  2. These kinds of posts, especially on twitter, tend to super freak me out. They are often by people with anonymous types of accounts and there is no way to track them down. I HATE them. It leaves me feeling helpless and awful.

  3. Thank you for writing a piece that showcases how difficult these posts are from different perspectives. As the person in crisis, it’s hard to know what to do – and if you aren’t prepared with a crisis plan (or you completely forget about it) it can be easy to turn to a cry for help. As someone reading those tweets, it’s difficult to know how to approach the situation, if at all. Actively suicidal posts are conflicting in many ways.

    1. It’s very hard. No one wants to give the message that people should stay quiet about being suicidal. And I suppose for people who are always very active and unfiltered on social media, posting there is likely in many cases a very automatic response.

  4. I don’t spend a lot of time on twitter and mostly follow the poetry community but I agree it’s not the right place to seek help. I’m sure there’s no rational thought behind such posts, it’ll be an impulse to reach out in some way. But, as you say, a wellness /recovery plan is a great tool but maybe too few people have them.

  5. Great post! I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered this online. I use Facebook, but that’s it. Twitter confuses me, and I’m not really familiar with any other sites. I agree. On the rare occasion that I get suicidal, I try to find an online hotline to contact. But then I blog about it after, and I hope that’s not triggering!! 😮 (Usually, I wait and wait and wait and then give up on talking to someone, and I lose interest in offing myself, so it’s a win-win.)

    I think your suggestion of having a strategy (like with me and online hotlines) is brilliant. Another great thing would be if Twitter could search out these messages and send the Tweeters some resources. I think Facebook has a function like that, where you can click if you’re worried about someone, but I don’t think Twitter does.

    1. I’ve never found blog posts particularly triggering. To me it makes a difference that a blog post will give the reader more of the story rather than just a single statement about suicide. What I’ve heard some people mention on Twitter is that if people report Tweets out of concerns sometimes Twitter will temporarily suspend the account, which isn’t helpful. I saw an investigative journalism show recently that looked at how Facebook decides whether or not to be concerned about things that are flagged, and it didn’t sound particularly effective.

      1. Rats!! Oh well, so much for social media helping people out!! Yeah, I see what you mean. You raise an interesting issue that has no easy solutions!!

  6. I see posts like that a lot in some of my Facebook groups, both the ones about mental illness and chronic pain/illness. It always does make me sad and more depressed myself.

  7. It’s especially difficult when people make posts like this and then just disappear for ages. I have some sympathy for not wanting to engage with people when you’re feeling like you just want to die (been there, done that), but the least you can do is offer a quick note that you’re still alive before crawling into your cave.

  8. I think spreading awareness of suicide is very important but it should be done so so careful because last thing you want to do is promote it. I use my Instagram to spread awareness of my mental health but I’m always scared to mention suicidal thoughts as it scares some people. Xxxx

  9. Thanks for writing about this. It seems to me like it’s a new issue that our society is facing, and we all kinda have to decide what to do about it.
    Personally I don’t use social media much. The times that I have made a kind of “cry for help” in a larger group setting have been in group chats with my friends (~20 people). I have asked if anyone’s around in the suite that I can talk to, and sometimes I’ve asked a specific question about what to do about some issue and then people have replied through the chat. Of course this is different from social media because for the most part these people know me, and they are also in close proximity to me. I think maybe reaching out for help from a large group is effective when it leads to one-on-one interactions… like, if it serves the purpose of connecting someone who needs help and someone willing to help them.

  10. I so agree with you. You wrote it so well 💗. I don’t like to see pictures of people self harming as it’s triggering. I have never done it and will not do it but it still don’t feel okay when I have to look to those pictures. I also felt like on Tumblr sometimes they were romantizing mental health illness when there’s nothing beautiful about it.

  11. There was a time I was an active Redditor who frequented a now-closed subreddit focused allllllll on graphic self-harm photos. Most typically cutting and burning. It tended to lead to “the worse, the better” even as it was also a very genuinely supportive sub. People also tended to inflict more and more severe wounds. I admit often I would look at it would ease my own self-harm desires, but it was not a healthy space.

    My foray there was for a few years, and it only ended when Reddit banned the place, as well as all offshoots trying to get around the ban. Then as I continued to process trauma and worthlessness in therapy, and started having more of my emotional needs met, my desire to self-harm slowly ebbed. I’m 148 days self-harm free as of today. 🙂

  12. Also also I was once in an emotionally and verbally abusive friendship where graphic photos of Someone’s SH and graphic details of suicide attempts was used to “punish” me: “Look what you made me do”. I suspect that former friend has undiagnosed BPD.

      1. Yeeeppp. I know not all folks with BPD are like that but holyyyy hell. These days, my personal policy is not engaging closely with anyone who triggers my “this person is going to need a lot of crisis support” sense. Mainly because I can’t do it. I’ve tried and it has only done harm to myself, my loved ones, and them when I inevitably burnout.

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