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 effective reporting to happen, but it isn’t quite that simple in most cases.
What should readers do?
As a reader, it’s hard to know what to do when someone has broadcast their active suicidal ideation to thousands of followers, most of whom know little to nothing about them. Such messages can be triggering to others, especially when they now have this knowledge that a person is suicidal without having enough knowledge to be able to act in a meaningful way. There often is no clear way to help, and it may be that the only thing that seems doable is to flag the message to the social media platform in the hopes that they’ll do something.
I 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. In some cases, they’ll even lock the suicidal person’s account for a period of time. It seems pretty clear 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 need to provide your name and email address, but not your Twitter handle.
Twitter also has a list of mental health partners around the world; that’s 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’ll 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, as 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.
You may also be interested in the post What if a Stranger Tells You They’re Suicidal?
The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.
34 thoughts on “Suicidal Posts on Social Media: What Should Platforms Do?”
It’s sad that some social media outlets would rather disable the person’s account, then to promote us reaching out to them. In whatever way/however that looks.
I completely agree.
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.
I agree, social media is not a great choice, but I guess with so many people really hooked on social media it’s where they feel most supported.
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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.
I agree that it’s lose-lose. And locking accounts throws an extra lose in there for good measure.
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.
Yes it’s a difficult issue all around. But locking accounts is particuarly dicey.
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.
Yeah it’s hard to know, especially with someone you don’t know very well.
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
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.
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.
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.
Really interesting – I didn’t know any of this about Twitter – shameful of them. Thanks for the research 😘
Yeah they really need to do better.
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.
That’s a generalization that’s not always true.
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
It’s hard to say how often this happens, since I can only speak to what I’ve seen, but it does seem to be a problem.
This is a tough topic. I do like that Twitter seems to have a protocol for sending out resources.
At least it’s something.
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.
Old post I know, but tonight I have personal experience if Instagram flags your Instagram Story or Post as suicidal. I can tag you on Instagram if you want to see their automated “here’s help” thing.
(I’m OK, just really bad day <3 )
Oh sure. Sending hugs. 🤗
DM’ed you on instagram. It’s not too robotic, but also really stupid, so o feel
Huh, that’s rather unhelpful.
Haha yeahhh 😛
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