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Facebook Tackles Suicide Prevention

By Rachelle Dragani
Dec 14, 2011 11:20 AM PT

Facebook has teamed up with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to help bring emergency counseling services to members in need.

Facebook Tackles Suicide Prevention

The partnership aims to provide Facebook with the ability to spot comments or material users post that could be indications of severe distress. If another user sees worrying content posted by a friend, that user will then have the option to click on a "suicidal content" label, listed under the "harmful behavior" menu.

When that option is selected, the user who posted the content will then receive an email from Facebook that will contain a link to a private online chat session with a representative from the National Suicide Prevention Line. A phone number for the hotline will also be included in the email.

The user who reported the content will also receive an email confirming the distressing comment is being addressed.

The suicide prevention experts involved with the initiative hope that the online chat option will be a comfortable alternative for users who may be more familiar with Web interactions than having a conversation over the phone. The group also says the instant response could be beneficial in such crisis situations.

All of Facebook's users in the U.S. and Canada will be abel to use the service.

Crisis Technology

As Facebook and other social networking sites continue to grow and become more mainstream, crisis management centers have been looking toward new media to reach out to those in peril.

"Technology and social media have become an integral part of our lives. As such, services like Facebook, Twitter and others will play a very important role in future efforts at prevention. People are comfortable online, and this service is a way for them to communicate via the medium they feel most accustomed with. We are already seeing people announcing suicidal intentions on social media, so the more preventative services that can be integrated, the better," Jeremy Willinger, director of communications and marketing at The Mental Health Association of New York City, told TechNewsWorld.

Popular social platforms like Facebook, with its 800 million users worldwide, are natural spots for crisis prevention leaders to turn to when looking for a means to spread awareness or instant alerts.

"Facebook has an extensive track record of partnerships and innovation around programs specifically targeted at the wellbeing of people who use Facebook," Chris Kraeuter, communications personnel for the social network, told TechNewsWorld.

The site has partnered with various organizations to launch initiatives to stop bullying, start a citizen research grant program, and assist the AMBER Alert program to spread word on kidnappings and abductions.

"This is going to bring some attention and awareness to the issue, and it brings attention to the actual situation taking place not just on Facebook but nationally and internationally, where it's at a crisis level right now," Matthew Dovel, president of International Suicide Prevention, told TechNewsWorld.

Serious Issue Needs Serious Preparation

The rise of technology forums and social networks haven't been all good for preventing crises, however, and in fact have in some instances supported it. In one high profile case at Rutgers in 2010, a student killed himself shortly after his roommate allegedly used a webcam to tape him in a personal moment and posted the content online. Before dying, he posted his intentions on Facebook.

Many instances of teen bullying that lead to suicide also involve online teasing or harassment. Some of those same bullies could conceivably abuse the new Facebook system as just another tool for taunting, since there isn't a clear outline of what could be defined as suicidal content.

"They're going to have to fine tune this. They're jumping on a hand grenade here and they're going to have to stop copycats, and also have a clear definition of what determines if they think someone is suicidal. That is extremely important because they're going to be contacting people who are possibly mentally ill, but may not have been contemplating suicide. But because of the invasion of privacy, paranoia could take over and the idea of suicide gets placed in their heads," said Dovel.

In addition, since Facebook is such an enormous platform, Dovel said, the site and the suicide prevention hotline need to be prepared for the onslaught of notices it could receive.

"I can't afford a bad day. It's very important that I'm on every day. I take every call and email very seriously, and I don't know if they understand the magnitude of what they might be taking on. This is good for awareness, but it needs some serious thought," said Dovel.

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