Facebook’s suicide prevention efforts draw mixed review

Here and Now

Facebook, to much fanfare, announced last month that it would add new tools to help users get help for friends they see posting comments that may indicate thoughts of suicide.

Amanda Cummings, a 15-year-old from Long Island, committed suicide in December and posted comments on her Facebook that might have been considered a warning site. But, at the same time, her mother and sister say it was bullies on the site itself that pushed her over the edge. Facebook didn’t intervene in any way at the time, though it says that it’s in a position now to point users to help, if their friends are worried about suicidal comments.

“The new service enables Facebook users to report a suicidal comment they see posted by a friend to Facebook using either the Report Suicidal Content link or the report links found throughout the site,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin wrote on the company’s blog.

John Grohol, a psychologist and expert on online mental health services, isn’t so sure that the new Facebook policy is really such a good idea.

Under the new Facebook policy, flagged comments are reviewed by a staffer who may send an email to the person, if the comment does seem suicidal. It will include phone numbers and links to an online chat where people can get help from professional mental health experts.

“They’re trying to address the increasing problem of suicide online, especially amongst teenagers, adolescents and young adults,” Grohol said. “The cons come on the side of the fact that most people who sign up for Facebook never imagine that Facebook would suddenly become a health information provider. And then there’s also the concern that whatever someone posted on Facebook may or may not be suicidal.”

Grohol said that could wind up leading to overwhelmed the limited resources available for suicide crisis prevention. Plus, there are other ways this can be handled, Grohol said.

“A friend or a family member just reaching out to that person in real life can often make the difference,” he said.

He’s also worried that there may be some therapeutic benefits lost because counselors aren’t able to see their subjects and take any cues from their body language. Though it can certainly be effective, he said.

“It’s a well-intentioned effort. I think it needs to be tweaked and refined a little bit,” he said. “I don’t think they should be using email. Facebook already has a private messaging service on their website. I’m not sure why they don’t just use that.”

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