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How to help a social media friend who’s struggling

After she noticed a Twitter friend mention suicide, Lauren Laverne realised that we need to have a frank discussion about spotting – and dealing with – depression online

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By Lauren Laverne on

“There’s no tone on the internet.” One of the notoriously tricky things about social media is the fact that – even though what they’re saying is right there in front of you in black and white – it can be very difficult to tell what they actually mean. Most of us will have experienced this. Someone missing a joke or a reference, or getting their conversational wires crossed, can be embarrassing, confusing and annoying (I’m with my friend Stuart, who insists there should be different fonts to denote irony, sarcasm etc), but what if the consequences of this problem could be more serious? How do we know when someone’s online behaviour is cause for concern – an indication that they might be about to cause themselves harm? 

A few weeks ago, I was up late and checking Twitter. This is unusual for me, but I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t be bothered to read, so I thought I’d see whether anyone who might be up already in America had done any more amazing bass jams over Donald Trump’s speeches or posted any new videos of bears breaking into people’s empty swimming pools and making free with the inflatables. The very last thing I was expecting was to see a tweet from someone I follow which implied that they were suicidal but, as I scanned my feed, that was exactly what happened. Now, I make a living as a communicator. I’m also reasonably adept at social media but, as the penny dropped (immediately followed by my stomach), I realised that I had absolutely no idea if – or how – to respond to what sounded like a cry for help from someone I didn’t actually know. Someone whose location I didn’t actually know. 

In the hour that followed, I replied and kept checking my own mentions just in case. I attempted to contact others who might have known the person and eventually managed to do so. I discovered that the tweeter was with friends, so safer than he might have been. The next morning, he replied and seemed in a better place. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of helplessness and the thought that accompanied it: if I didn’t know what to do – with 71,000 tweets under my belt and as co-founder of the very website you’re reading – would most people? So, I thought I’d use this blog to point towards the tools and advice I have since discovered are there that might be helpful if you spot someone in trouble. 

There’s no tone on the internet, it’s true, but it’s always been difficult to spot the difference between waving and drowning

Facebook has actually just added a “Suicide Prevention Tool”, developed in collaboration with Samaritans. The feature has been running for a while in the US and Australia, but came to the UK this February. Those who see explicit suicide threats are asked to call the emergency services. The next step down from that allows users to tag (“troubling content”). This alerts a round-the-clock team who review posts, prioritise them and then send a message offering options of help, including anonymous support from Samaritans. You can find the details here.

Of course, Samaritans has lots of information about how to respond if you suspect someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts. They also have a really useful PDF guide explaining how to spot content that might be cause for concern. They stress that, while it can be very difficult to judge someone’s intentions online, we should always take posts about suicide seriously.

Twitter’s Help Centre offers guidelines and advice for users who have seen messages showing someone is at risk of self-harm or suicide, including an “alert the team” feature, and a guide to what to look for. You may remember that the service created a “suicide-prevention” app i<Samaritans Radar>i back in 2014, but it was pulled after a change.org petition, which claimed the app (which used an algorithm to scan tweets for specific words and phrases) was an invasion of people’s privacy. You can find out more about its deletion here.

It’s great that social media’s big beasts are responding to this problem, but it feels like there is still plenty of work to do, and a conversation to be had about when and how we can help people who are struggling. There’s no tone on the internet, it’s true, but it’s always been difficult to spot the difference between waving and drowning. Perhaps technology can provide a new way to reach people until we find out which it is they’re doing.


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