What do I do when you tell me you want to die?

Image: carnaval_08
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. 


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 30th May 2011 / 11:06 am

    Thankfully I have never been witness to this online. I would most certainly do what you did though. I would be unable to live with myself if someone did go ahead and take their own life and I had just sat by. It is certainly worth their displeasure and you never know might just be the shock they needed to make them think twice in the future about making these comments.
    Really interesting post.

  2. 30th May 2011 / 11:17 am

    What I do know is this: someone posting they want to die is normally a cry for help. Someone who is determined to end their life doesn’t usually post on social media sites – partly because they are so determined in their course of action that they don’t anyone to stop them.
    That’s not to say we should ignore people that do post such updates. I think you should offer your support but don’t worry too much. People usually just need to know that there is someone who cares if they go.
    I used to be a senior moderator on a discussion board and occasionally we would get people starting threads that suggested they were going to end it all. Some of the mods (and all of us were volunteers) would get very distressed by this and want to track them down. In the end, we developed a guideline – talk to them and offer support, and give them the Samaritans number as you have. To my knowledge, in the 5 years that I modded on that board – which was an extremely busy discussion board with thousands of registered users – not one person that posted to say they were going to end their life actually did. And yes, we would check if they posted again. These events were one reason we decided to start a mental health issues board.

  3. 30th May 2011 / 11:35 am

    Assessing someone’s suicide risk is basically my job and In both my professional and personal view Kate has it spot on. But if you are concerned about someone’s safety then you should always call the police/ambulance/get them to A&E.

  4. 30th May 2011 / 11:52 am

    I’ve never come across this online but my grown up job involves dealing with suicidal people by telephone on a regular basis. I feel so helpless when I’m speaking to them as I’m at the other end of the phone line and in reality there’s very little I can do for them other than sort out the immediate problem that they’re calling about and that is generally not the main reason why they’re feeling suicidal.
    Theres been a good few times that I’m come off the phone emotionally drained and had a cry at my desk and a few times when I’ve called the police as I thought that the person genuinely meant it.
    I agree with Kate that the vast majority of people who want to end their lives would do so without posting it on a social media site or without ringing a stranger to let them know they were going to do it. Saying that, there’s always the exception to the rule isn’t there?
    I always give the Samaritans number as they are the people who are trained to help, I’ve thought about volunteering for them in the past but I’m not sure I could.

  5. Nikkii
    30th May 2011 / 1:52 pm

    I think the response you describe is appropriate. Pass on all the information you have to the relevant services. Don’t Tweet what you did, or blog about your role or use social media to fan the flames of the crisis. And if those you have intervened on behalf of don’t welcome it then tough shit, they put it out there and it’s wholly unfair of them to expect everyone to ignore it.

  6. 30th May 2011 / 1:26 pm

    Thanks Karen, yes, I sometimes think if someone is being theatrical then maybe a policeman on the doorstep might give them the shock they need!

  7. 30th May 2011 / 1:27 pm

    Yes, I agree about the cry for help thing, it’s horribly common – but then research suggests those who do commit suicide often make cries for help first – so perhaps intervening can still be helpful?
    Thanks for commenting x

  8. 30th May 2011 / 1:29 pm

    I agree to an extent – the vast majority of suicides don’t involve dramatic blog posts or Facebook updates. But I do think such updates are becoming increasingly common – I read of a huge number of people posting suicide notes on Facebook, or announcing their intentions on chat forums – often people discount those messages and unfortunately by the time someone DOES take it seriously, it’s too late.
    The challenge for those of us observing – especially in a social media environment – is there is no way to truly know which sort of incident you’re seeing play out in front of you.
    The expert advice is pretty much as you say – reassure someone that people do care, offer them a link to external support, and hope for the best!

  9. 30th May 2011 / 1:32 pm

    I’m with you – there is always the exception to the rule, and I think as social media becomes more prevalent we’ll see more and more exceptions. A quick Google reveals dozens of cases of people posting suicide notes online and subsequently killing themselves – and research also suggests that people posting suicide threats online TEND to receive less help and support than others – perhaps because of the fragility of those connections, and people not being sure what to say or do. It’s tough to know.

  10. Vegemitevix
    30th May 2011 / 11:00 pm

    As you know Sally, I’ve seen this situation before and we did exactly as you did. In that situation the person also did not appreciate our interevention but the right help did reach her in time. I think it is important that we remind ourselves that we don’t really know the IRL situation, and it may be that person has had a lot to drink and may regret those words in the morning. In other cases however it could well be the case that they really are in trouble. How to know the difference? I’m not sure, but I would do as you’ve done and err on the side of caution.

  11. 30th May 2011 / 10:42 pm

    Nikkii – that’s definitely something I’m conscious of – I hate feeling I’m being used as part of someone else’s need for drama. Because, as mean as it might sound, there ARE people who use social media and threats as a way to generate excitement or drama for themselves. I certainly don’t get involved in online debates for that reason.

  12. 30th May 2011 / 10:43 pm

    I’ve never had to deal with this luckily, but I’d much rather have someone be pissed off at me for sending an ambulance their way when they were just crying out or being dramatic then to find out they were being truthful and I did nothing.

  13. 30th May 2011 / 11:13 pm

    Thanks for commenting Nickie – I agree that people can and do exploit others in the way you explain – the challenge is can we ever really take the risk of making an assumption. IT’s so hard to know which is which!

  14. Joanne
    31st May 2011 / 11:17 am

    Well done you. Thankfully I have never been in that situation and I don’t think I’d know what to do if I was! At least I’ll know now!

  15. 31st May 2011 / 10:44 am

    I think your response is absolutely the right one. In that scenario, it could be that the ambulance you send is the life-saving help that the person desperately needs. Worst case scenario with taking action is that it was not needed – and is a waste of time and not well received. In which case, it may at least be a wake up call to stop someone using you and social media to be over dramatic.
    If you decide NOT to take any action, the worst case scenario is a lot worse.
    I’d have done what you did too, especially in a situation where you really have no way of knowing who that person is or what their motives are.

  16. 31st May 2011 / 10:50 am

    Thanks – it’s definitely the thing of what’s the worst that can happen, I agree.

  17. 31st May 2011 / 10:50 am

    It’s true, because I think IRL it *is* easier sometimes to ignore threats because you know someone is drunk or has a flair for the dramatic – I’ve had a few of those friends over the years!

  18. 31st May 2011 / 10:51 am

    Absolutely – I can live with someone being pissed off about that!

  19. 31st May 2011 / 10:56 am

    Well done Sally – both for calling the police/ambulance and for blogging it. It must have been a horrible dilemma. It’s a real concern for anyone looking after social media spaces – although I’ve witnessed several very obvious breakdowns, I wouldn’t have known what to do in this case, but would now! Thank you.

  20. 31st May 2011 / 10:05 pm

    Its really difficult isn’t it, I don’t think I would know what to do to be honest! I have never been in that situation and would probably flap and make a mess of it. I think this is really interesting to read xx

  21. Hatster
    1st June 2011 / 8:00 am

    Sal, you did the right thing. You have to assume they will follow through with the plans and act accordingly. If you don’t take action and someone decides to do as they say they are planning to do, how would you live with yourself for standing by.
    I struggle to understand the thought process behind this sort of action because I haven’t been there myself, but can see it’s a modern-day cry for help. My sister-in-law went into anaphylactic shock recently and posted the fact on Facebook before going AWOL. She was fine and had called an ambulance, a fact she hadn’t mentioned, so the concern that family and friends felt soon turned to anger. I think it was irresponsible, but the motivation was similar.

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