How Should Social Media Handle Reported Suicidal Posts?

How should social media handle reported suicidal posts? - social media logos in a circle around the word help

Let’s say you’re scrolling through your Twitter feed.  You see a tweet that makes it seem like that person intends to imminently act on suicidal thoughts.  What do you do?

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a good answer.

I’ve been on the reporting side on one occasion.  Someone had posted on their blog, which was shared on Twitter, that they had overdosed on pills.  I saw the blog post first and thought crap, what can I do?  So I headed over to Twitter to see if I could find more information.  Luckily this person’s town of residence was on their Twitter profile, so I didn’t have to try reporting to Twitter.  Instead, I called the cops in this person’s town, at which point I found out another Twitter user had already done the same thing and police were already with the blogger.

That’s probably the ideal way for it to go down in terms of being able to effectively report, but it isn’t quite that simple in most cases.

Twitter

I fairly regularly see tweets from people complaining that someone has reported their tweets to Twitter because of content related to suicide.  They’re annoyed, and the people commenting share their frustration.  Twitter’s response is to send an email with a list of services the person could access, and in some cases will lock the suicidal person’s account for a period of time.  It seems pretty clear from what I’ve seen that reporting to Twitter doesn’t help at all, and more often than not makes things worse.

Twitter has this to say about how they approach suicide threats:

“After we assess a report of self-harm or suicide, Twitter will contact the reported user and let him or her know that someone who cares about them identified that they might be at risk. We will provide the reported user with available online and hotline resources and encourage them to seek help.”

They have a reporting form for threats of suicide or self-harm.  When you’re reporting, you’re required to provide your name and email address, but not your Twitter handle.

Twitter also has a list of mental health partners around the world, which is probably what they provide to people whose Tweets have been reported.  My own country, Canada, is partner-free – so would Twitter just tell Canadians they’re shit outta luck?

Then you’ve got their policy on glorifying self-harm and suicide.  Here’s some of what they’ve got to say:

“While we want people to feel safe sharing their thoughts and feelings, we draw the line at encouraging or promoting self-harm and suicidal behavior, which can pose safety risks for others. With that in mind, we apply a two-pronged approach to the issue: supporting people who are undergoing experiences with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, but prohibiting the promotion or encouragement of self-harming behaviors. “

The first time someone is deemed to violate this policy, they will need to remove the tweet and their account will temporarily be locked.  Repeat violators may have their accounts suspended.  It sounds like the bar is set very low for something to be deemed as glorifying suicide, and Twitter leans more heavily on the prohibition side than the support side.

Facebook & Instagram

I’m less familiar with how social media platforms other than Twitter respond, but Facebook has a form to report suicidal content and a page with recommendations on how to help someone who’s suicidal.

On a page about self-injury, Instagram says:

“You may have seen a post on Instagram that worries you. If so, you can let us know about it by reporting the post and we may send some resources that we’ve developed with suicide prevention experts to the person. They won’t know that you reported their post. In some cases, we may contact emergency services if they seem to be in immediate danger.”

On the resources page that’s hyperlinked in the above quote, they suggest talking to a friend, talking to a helpline volunteer, or doing some self-care, like drinking a glass of water.  When I clicked on the helpline volunteer link, it sent me over to Facebook, where I was given contact info for Canadian helplines for people under 20 and also for First Nations and Inuit people.  Nada for middle-aged white folk like me.

Is there a better way?

So, they are making some effort, but is it just a matter of tokenism?  Perhaps.  If a platform’s actions are actually making things worse for people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide, that’s not good.  You’d hope there would be some effective reporting mechanism available when someone truly is at imminent risk.  But then again, the reliability of potential reporters isn’t always going to be that great.

Emailing someone a list of resources is something I would consider tokenism.  If people want to know about suicide crisis resources, they’re quite capable of using Google to find them.  A form letter from Twitter is probably just going to feel insulting.  Locking people’s accounts is even more problematic, in that it silences people at a time when it’s important for them to be talking.  There are a lot of people who rely on their social media networks as an important form of mental health support, and cutting them off from that is not helpful.

Is there a better way?  I suppose it depends on the volume of reports that they get.  But what if they had a team of people who had proper mental health training who could call emergency services if that was needed and sufficient information was available, or reach out by direct message to see if the person needed help connecting to resources.

Until there is a better way, if you see someone posting on social media about feeling suicidal, think twice before reporting them to the social media platform.

 

 

Mental Health @ Home Store Safety Plan for suicide prevention

 

 

Visit the Mental Health @ Home Store for a free downloadable safety plan for suicide prevention.

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28 thoughts on “How Should Social Media Handle Reported Suicidal Posts?

  1. Meg says:

    Yeah, this is why I hate Twitter. They locked my account once, and all I’d posted was something along the lines of, “My book’s on sale. Go buy it!” or whatever, with a link and cover image. Instant lock. My dad explained to me that Twitter is run by robots. (Well, the way he said it sounded more credible than that.) Aside from that one Tweet, I’ve never used Twitter and don’t think very highly of it as a website.

    There also seems to be a lot of hostility going on over there, and I hate getting caught up in that sort of thing. I can handle it on FB, because I choose my friends carefully and don’t follow the ones who post graphic, offensive stuff; but on Twitter, it seems less like a way to connect with people and more like a way to shout at everyone. I think for suicide, that would make it the worst place possible to be. Add in the locking mechanism, and you might push someone over the edge. That’s reprehensible. I was banned from a forum once, and it did a number on my mental health. So I’m thinking that if someone was suicidal and then got blocked on Twitter, um, ouchie, that person’s going to come all the way undone. Twitter to me, for so many reasons, seems like soulless website that has no conscience behind it whatsoever. I’d urge anyone with suicidal tendencies to stay the heck away from it!! Never tweet that you’re suicidal. Go find a friend or call a hotline.

    Great blog post, and I hope it reaches a lot of people!

    • ashleyleia says:

      Facebook may well lock people as well; I wouldn’t know since I don’t use Facebook. I know Instagram is very quick to lock people, and it’s run by Facebook. I don’t think the Facebook/Instagram conglomerate is any less soulless than Twitter; they all automate as much as possible.
      But yeah, social media isn’t a great place to go with suicidal ideation, unless it’s connecting with people by DMs.

  2. kachaiweb says:

    That is a difficult one for me to answer. I think when someone posts about such serious topics, it can really be a cry for help. Getting no answer at all would be the worst for me. So even if I would get a phone number that would be better. On the other hand, it can feel like you’re just being ‘tossed around’ with your cry for help. You can’t cry here, you’re not our problem, it’s better to redirect your cry for help somewhere else.
    I tried to talk to people I ‘knew’ from social media when times got tough but they also asked me if I could call a number in my country to help me with that. For me social media isn’t a good fit in desperate times but still better than nothing.

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  4. Luftmentsch says:

    I’m not a great fan of social media, but I can kind of see that they’re in a lose-lose situation here: do nothing and abet suicide, intervene and potentially be accused of interfering, not to mention the potential civil rights violations of passing on someone’s information to the emergency services, even with the best of intentions (imagine you were an undocumented migrant – would you want the police knowing where you were even if you were suicidal? It’s a difficult decision). Locking accounts seems very counter-productive though.

  5. Lori Bernstein says:

    They suggest drinking water for self-care? I have seen people post they are suicidal on forums and then disappear. I found it difficult to deal with the waiting and worrying. I felt helpless and stressed.

    I don’t like the idea of locking accounts when people are looking for help. I do agree, if they are promoting SH or SI.

    Reddit automatically posts links to resources if you post anything about suicide.

    Thank you for this blog post. I did not know what happens when you report.

  6. marandarussell says:

    It is hard sometimes to even know when someone might be hinting that they are feeling suicidal. Like when people share things that ask how people would feel if they died, would anyone miss me, etc…I always wonder what they are feeling and thinking when posting stuff like that.

  7. wediditptsd says:

    This seems like an important situation. Young people—digital natives, we’ve heard them called—seem to live on social media. This half-assed, cover-your-ass approach ain’t gonna cut it. Should we do something about it? There has to be some energetic grad student who cares out there…Or we could try… Maybe we could find a way to all work together. Ugh, we’re in fix-everything mode. We can’t fix everything. We can send compassion and breathe

    • ashleyleia says:

      I’m not sure that it is something fixable. Regardless of whatever resources might be available, those people that seem to live on social media are going to feel most comfortable expressing themselves there. And there will always be people reading who get concerned and are unsure what to do. Compassion is probably one of the best approaches.

  8. Melanie B Cee says:

    I’m confused as to what good it does to report someone suicidal to a social media site? The site (as you point out) usually won’t do anything, IF they’re able to anyway. Finding out where the potential suicidal person is and reporting them to some authorities there is obviously the best choice. But I’m curious about another thing. Don’t ‘serious’ suicides isolate enough that they aren’t posting their intentions on social media? I know when I attempted suicide, the last thing on my mind was putting it out there for Facebook followers to find. I just did it. Suicide thrives in secrecy. One hopes that people who are that depressed have a support network active enough to catch their intention and help them. Sadly that doesn’t happen near often enough in my opinion.

    • ashleyleia says:

      I think some people report because they feel like something should be done, without really having any idea what the right thing to do is. I’m also a silent suicidal type. I get the sense that borderline personality disorder is more correlated with social media posts, and it’s more the intense impulsive spikes in suicidal ideation rather than the slow burn to ashes of purely depression.

  9. Anamorphosis says:

    It’s always a cry for help. It’s like receiving a text at 3AM. How to respond? Let that person know you could read between the lines; that you are just a click away incase he or she feels ready to reach out.

    It may be hard to believe but a person who decides to commit suicide can be stopped by simply realizing someone understands.

  10. amymayj says:

    That’s so shocking to read these platforms would rather suspend the account than make an attempt to reach out. I wasn’t completely aware on how these platforms handle suicidal content so this was quite an eye opener. It’s clear that much more needs to be done. Thank you for sharing x

  11. skinnyhobbit says:

    I’ve experienced Facebook. They say some generic crap and ask you to call the Samaritans / a 24 hour hotline in your country.

    Back when I used Twitter (5 years ago), Twitter didn’t delete the tweet, but again there weren’t partner resources in my country.

    It always felt like liability management rather than genuine care. And tbh I feel a lot of users don’t understand chronic passive suicidal ideation (which I experienced a lot back then) VS active suicidality.

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