It’s an interesting strategy: Facebook has teamed up with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in a new initiative that makes the Lifeline counselors available 24/7 on Facebook chat. ZDnet’s Emil Protalinski explains how it’s meant to work:
If a Facebook friend spots a suicidal thought on someone’s profile, that person can report it to Facebook by clicking a link next to the comment. Facebook will then send an e-mail to the person who posted the suicidal comment. Previously, Facebook only told troubled individuals to call a hotline or encouraged friends to call law enforcement if they perceived someone was about to do harm. Now, the social networking giant is also offering a link to a confidential Facebook Chat session with a professional.
I’ve read some objections to the new service on the basis of invasion of privacy, and I understand those concerns. But this could be a lifesaving practical step. When someone posts their despair on Facebook, they are reaching out. If the next email they get is from a trained crisis counselor saying, “Hey, do you want to talk?”—but via chat, which is less intimidating and depends on the way the person is already communicating—it could the very intervention that turns things around. That’s why hotlines exist: they work. At the very worst, a person could say, “No thanks.” But I don’t imagine much harm would be done. Part of what’s so scary about suicidal moments is the isolation. You already feel that no one can understand, that the pain is pain no one else has ever felt. Hope is gone, self-regard is gone, the idea that people care seems far away. But people do care, and to be reminded of that can break through the despair.
There have been numerous cases where people have posted to Facebook prior to committing violent acts, including suicide. Just recently, a young girl, Ramie Grimmer, posted to Facebook that she might die on the day that her mother did, in fact, shoot her, her brother and herself in a welfare office in Texas. I’m not saying the Facebook service could have prevented what happened. But people really do reach out when they’re in extremis. Normally, if you see something strange on a friend’s Facebook status, you might even assume they’re kidding. But if you know you can press a button and have a hotline counselor send a quick message, you’ll probably do it, just in case.
Oh, and by the way, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255).
[This is cross-posted from the mental health website The Trouble With Spikol. I don't normally do that, but I think it's an important tech story too.]