Staff Perspective: The Role of Social Media in Suicide Prevention

Staff Perspective: The Role of Social Media in Suicide Prevention

Communication campaigns offer an efficient method to promote prevention and reinforce mental health and wellness (Summer et al., 2019). Over the past decade suicide prevention media campaigns have gained significant traction as a means of combatting suicide. Social media’s increasing popularity, especially with younger generations who are often difficult to engage in traditional forms of treatment, suggest it has potential to be used as a preventative tool. Moreover, social media platforms provide an anonymous, accessible and non-judgmental forum for sharing experiences and facilitating immediate intervention following an expression of suicidal ideation or intent (Robinson et al., 2016). In fact, some experts and key stakeholders have indicated that social media can be an effective tool to connect individuals with resources and supportive services (Robinson et al., 2015).

The flexibility of social media facilitates reaching out to various target audiences. Some social media platforms have been used to target suicidal individuals containing various resources including message boards, instant chat, and online forums, as well as information-based materials (e.g. brochures and articles) and lists of emergency contact information, support organizations and resources. Others target mental health professionals who work with individuals presenting with suicidal thoughts or behaviors. These sites often include resources for training and professional development, consultation and peer support, and modalities for information sharing.

One study examining the reach of social media in identifying individuals at risk for suicide found that peer-driven preventative intervention delivered via MySpace was able to reach more than 18,000 individuals, a significantly larger sample than would have been otherwise reached through more traditional methods of suicide prevention (Silenzio et al., 2009). In a survey of key stakeholders, respondents indicated the following benefits of social media:

1) the ability to express their emotions in a safe and supportive environment;

2) the opportunity to receive support from others who have had similar experiences; and

3) the potential to intervene promptly if someone expresses suicidal thoughts or plans. Respondents also highlighted the value of social media platforms as a means to provide help to others, not just seek help for themselves. Researchers concluded that social media may have the potential of providing a useful adjunct to traditional treatment (Robinson et al., 2015).

It is important to consider that there are a number of potential risks associated with the use of social media that must also be taken seriously. A few of the most notable concerns include:

1) contagion;

2) difficulties controlling user behavior;

3) issues related to privacy and confidentiality; and

4) concerns about the skills and training of the moderators.

It is clear that there is a need for clear guidelines, protocols and ethical standards regarding the use of social media platforms in suicide prevention. There is a need for evaluations that employ rigorous designs assessing relevant outcomes. Research should explore the nature of given campaigns, campaign messaging and the reach of the campaign.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Sharon Birman, Psy.D., is a Military Behavioral Health Psychologist working with the Military Training Programs at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.


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