Mental Health

The role of online communities in suicide awareness and prevention

Note: This blog post contains information that could be upsetting. If you are feeling vulnerable, do take care if you choose to read this post and please see our crisis resources if you need help now

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and whether it’s someone we’ve known personally, a celebrity in the public eye, or even someone we’ve only known online, sadly many of us know, or know of, someone who has killed themselves. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has excellent resources to better understand how to look out for warning signs of suicide but also offers 5 simple action steps for helping someone that’s living with emotional pain. In this increasingly connected digital age, it’s worth considering the role that online communities might play in supporting people.

First of all its important to dispel a common myth. Some health care professionals and researchers have traditionally avoided asking people whether they had been having thoughts about killing themselves out of fear that simply asking the question might “plant the idea in their head” or “trigger them to act”. In fact a number of studies have found that asking people actually reduces their distress and while a small proportion are negatively affected this is usually only short term.

What role is there for the Internet and digital technologies in screening and supporting people at risk of suicide? HealthUnlocked’s recent 2018 User Survey shows that the 1 million members of our 700 online communities report feeling stronger sharing their experiences anonymously in a safe space. Other studies of online communities have shown that people with mood disorders report that belonging to a group has reduced thoughts about self harm, supported them to start therapy or counseling, and made them feel they needed less in-patient care. That’s not to say we can’t do more, and leading social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter increasingly have both manual and automated content-flagging features to quickly direct users to crisis resources, remove content glorifying or promoting suicide or self-harm, as well as contributing data to research programs hoping to build more sensitive and accurate detection systems. At HealthUnlocked our community team is always there to monitor the discussions taking place and where appropriate they will work with communities to ensure people have the right to express their feelings and be heard without putting their safety or the wellbeing of others at risk.

In one example of online communities coming together to contribute their experiences to research, psychiatrists and psychologists were looking to develop a new battery of questions and tests to help measure suicidal ideation in hospitals and at home. Through traditional methods they interviewed 14 people in a hospital. By contrast, some 686 members of an online community with a past history of suicidal experiences were able to participate in the same research study in just a week to offer a much larger volume of feedback and improvements to the tool, which is now being used in clinical trials of the drug esketamine for preventing suicidal ideation.

We have a number of communities to support people including the 32,000+ members of our Anxiety and Depression Association of America support group, the UK Shaw Mind Foundation’s Mental Health Support group or our Post-Natal Illness group for those living with post-natal depression or related conditions.

Only by talking about suicide and coming together to share solutions can we make an impact and support one another.

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