Social media types (and I’m probably one of them) tend to use the word ‘connect’ more often than is healthy. So I have thousands of connections on social media – people I’ve interviewed, writers, bloggers, editors. I chat with these people online, sometimes on a daily basis. They read and comment on my blog. We share jokes, information, contacts, opinions.
But for the most part, I am not your friend. In many cases, I don’t even know you.
So what should I do when you tell me you want to die?
Last night, someone I know only virtually posted a series of updates indicating they were going to take their own life. It’s not the first time I’ve seen someone do this on a social network, and every time I struggle knowing how to react – do I know you well enough to intervene? We are strangers. How could anything I say be of any use at all?
Threats of suicide or self-harm online are weird because the chances are that I don’t know the person making the threat. Certainly, I don’t know you well enough to know if you’re being sincere, looking for attention, or whether your words are part of some elaborate experiment or stunt. Heck, I might not even know your full name, or where you live.
When a ‘real’ friend is in crisis, it’s easier to know what tone to take, and whether a robust, “come on, pick yourself up” will work better than hugs and sympathy or whether a call to the community psychiatric team is in order. When it’s an online connection, who knows where to start?
For me, personally, I tend to think not knowing what to say is no excuse for staying silent. And nor can we assume it’s not serious – as those who watched Abraham Biggs kill himself online may have thought, or those who ignored or baited Simone Black, who posted a suicidal message on Facebook.
My approach tends to be first to try and see if anyone who knows the individual in ‘real life’ has got involved. And if not, I have twice rung the police and reported the incident. On both occasions, the police took a note of the information I had about the person, as incomplete as it was, and managed to track them down and send an ambulance to their home to ensure they were safe.
My intervention wasn’t particularly welcomed on either of those occasions, I have to say. But I can live with that.
It’s something that’s becoming increasingly common, though, as we live and share more of our lives online than ever before. We're often watching other people's lives unfold before us, in real time.
I’m interested to know what other people’s experiences are – have you ever observed someone in crisis online? What did you do?
For anyone reading this who may be in crisis, the expert advice (and they know a lot more than me) is that help is available, and suicidal thoughts DO pass. You can always contact the Samaritans on 0845 7 90 90 90 . If you see a message on Facebook that concerns you, the site has close links with suicide prevention charities, and you can report the message using this link.