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Complex connection between social media, suicide, prevention

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
As social media continues to grow in popularity, mental health specialists across the country are taking a closer look at the relationship this fusion of technology and social interaction has with suicide and other destructive behaviors.

Dr. Heather Thanepohn, Air Force Reserve Command’s Director of Psychological Health program manager, has been spending a lot of time lately contemplating the complex connection that might exist between social media and suicide.

“I’m getting more and more questions and comments from the DPHs in the field and from squadron commanders on how social media and suicide might be related,” she said. “There’s not a lot of research out on this yet, but there is some that suggests that social media might be leading to feelings of isolation and not being connected in some people. Just because we have 2,477 Facebook friends doesn’t mean that we are really connected or that we necessarily know who we are friends with.”

Thanepohn referenced a recent study in the United Kingdom by the Mental Health Foundation that reported that nearly three out of five young adults aged 18 to 34, in spite of all their social networking, reported feeling isolated and disconnected often or all the time.

“Suicidal ideation is often coexistent with feelings of isolation and feeling apart from real connections with others,” said Joshua Hudson, the DPH at the 911th Airlift Wing, Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania. “While social media is a great tool for reaching out to seek help when feeling emotional and physical pain, it is probably not a great tool for bringing any real comfort to those who need to feel embraced by humanity.

“That makes social media paradoxical in its ability to both give the impression that it connects people around the world while simultaneously isolating them from the necessary human contact required by human beings to develop trusting and deep relationships.”

Thanepohn said that social media is not necessarily a bad thing and she is not advocating for people to stay away from Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram or other social media sites. But, she does caution people against spending too much time with social media or having it serve as a replacement for “real” communication.

“People need to have deep and meaningful relationships with other human beings,” she said. “It’s built into our DNA. What might be happening with some people is that they are trying to fill this need with superficial social media relationships and that just doesn’t work. This might be leading to feelings of isolation that could lead to destructive behaviors like suicide.

“There definitely needs to be more research into this topic; but my advice to people at this point would be to use social media in moderation. There’s nothing wrong with using Facebook to re-connect with the friends you had in high school, for example; but don’t let it take over your life. Like most everything in life, moderation is the key when it comes to social media.”

Thanepohn said she is also hearing more and more examples from the field of people who may be suicidal reaching out for help through social media.

“We’ve had cases where people became alarmed by something they saw on social media and that led to saves; and that’s a great thing,” she said.

One reservist saw a Facebook post from a fellow squadron member that she thought was a possible suicide threat. She contacted the member and became even more concerned for her friend’s safety. She contacted her unit’s command post who, in turn, contacted the first sergeant. Following a failed attempt to reach the member over the phone, the first sergeant and another unit member went to the person’s house and found the person unresponsive. The member was taken to the hospital, was treated and has made a full recovery.

In another example, a suspicious Facebook post aroused suspicion and prompted a reservist to call his unit. The unit responded and found the noncommissioned officer who made the post in his vehicle near death from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was taken to the hospital and survived the suicide attempt.

A recent Military Times article tells the story of Marine Corps Sgt. Raheem Boyd, who was in his barracks room at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, last May when a friend sent him an urgent message through Facebook that indicated a mutual friend and fellow Marine might be contemplating suicide.

Along with some other Marines who were made aware of the situation, Boyd went out to look for his friend. They found him in his car with an assault rifle by his side. When the Marine in distress reached for the weapon, Boyd hurled himself through the open window, pushed the gun away and locked the Marine in a bear hug.

“If it wasn’t for social media, we never would have known what was going on in his head and he would have gone through with (suicide),” Boyd was quoted as saying in the story.

“That’s one of the positive things about social media,” Thanepohn said. “If someone does post something indicating that he might be thinking about hurting himself, there is a good chance that it is going to be seen by multiple people and the chances of someone responding are greater.”

The top social media sites are active in the area of suicide prevention.

Facebook, for example, introduced a feature for reporting suicidal content in 2015 that provides support to the person who created a concerning post as well as those reporting the content. A user can send messages to a troubled friend through the option or reach out to a fellow friend who might be located closer physically to the friend in need. It can also send messages to the person who posted, telling him someone is concerned about him and providing links to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, suggested friends to speak to or tips for dealing with stress.

Twitter has a team devoted to handling threats of self-harm or suicide for users who encounter such threats on Twitter. After assessing 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. Twitter provides the reported user with available online and hotline resources and encourages them to seek help.

“I encourage people to use these features on sites like Facebook and Twitter and to use all of the other means they have at their disposal to help someone who might be thinking about hurting himself,” Thanepohn said. “If somebody posts something and you’re worried about him, don’t ignore it. Get involved.”

Unit reservists are encouraged to keep the number of their local DPH handy. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. It’s available 24 hours a day, every day. More information about suicide prevention and personal resilience is also available on the Wingman Toolkit website,