Facebook’s New Suicide Prevention Tool: Can this really work?

By Sadia Arshad on
March 11, 2015
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Like most innovations, this one too has an inspiration behind it. Now the manager of Forefront, Stephen Paul Miller, lost a friend to suicide a couple of years ago. Before the night he decided to put an end to his life, his friend had made one last appearance on Facebook posting about how things were getting too much and how he could not take it anymore.

There is no arguing the fact that Facebook has changed lives insignificant, and often unprecedented, ways. Apparently now, Facebook intends to change the way users might consider taking their lives away. In collaboration with Forefront, an interdisciplinary organization of professionals and researchers based at the University of Washington, the joint effort aims to implement innovative solutions to prevent the very serious and very prominent societal problem of suicide.

Facebook’s new suicide prevention tool will allow users to “report” posts and images that they suspect are an indication of other users’ suicidal thoughts. This reporting will in turn initiate a series of responses from the Facebook team providing the user with options to either message the apparently suicidal person, contact another friend for support or request assistance from a suicide helpline. If the team is able to confirm the depressive behavior, a series of responses will ultimately make their way to the potentially suicidal individual with a list of suggestions that might help.

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Even though the frequency of suicide is not as high in Pakistan as it is in the West, suicide is a complication that needs to be reckoned with everywhere. Unfortunately, not a lot of people are emotionally or professionally trained to deal with such a situation. Add that to the bitter reality of psychiatric help costing an abundance of money and a heap of embarrassment to the affected person. Considering these hindrances in making help available for suicidal people in addition to the role that social networks play in our daily routine and portrayal of our perceptions, the new online suicide prevention feature might make sense to some.

But while Facebook and Forefront’s efforts are appreciable, can this form of prevention really work? I was initially a little taken aback when I came across this piece of news. Could Meller really have prevented his friend from taking his life…through Facebook? Wouldn’t an intimate and private discussion be the more sensible and workable alternative? For the sake of this discussion, imagine you are (unfortunately) considering taking your life away. Would you not prefer being talked to personally instead of being sent an automatically generated response through an online portal? Perhaps the greatest difficult suicidal people face is the fear of opening up to people. Subjecting them to such a mechanical and robotic form of help might be a little cruel to be honest. Now imagine you are (fortunately) NOT considering taking your life away and just happen to be going through depressing events in life but your friends and Facebook take it to mean something worse. Awkward false alarm.

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