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Suicide Watch – The Responsibility of Facebook Friends

What he read on Facebook at 5:45am was very disturbing. Two hours earlier, a distant friend of my husband’s, a husband and father, wrote long paragraphs about his miserable life, and that this FB posting would be his last.

My husband told me what he’d read and with difficulty shared with me his sense of the situation. “Pending suicide attempt”.

Several well-meaning friends quickly replied on Facebook offering encouragement and an ear.

My response:  “Jon, call 911 now.”

My husband very briefly pushed back, “How do I know, I don’t know where they live any more, I don’t have their phone number?”

“Call 911 and ask them what you should do.”

This was an uncomfortable move to make. These are not super close friends and they do not reside in our region of the country, we had nothing to go on but a FB posting, it’s very intrusive to set in motion a police visit/wellness check, we ran the risk of angering very nice people, and then there is the issue of whether any person has the right to make “that” choice for himself.

Years ago I’d trained and taught with the American Red Cross and even longer ago I’d written a college paper on the Samaritan’s (suicide prevention hotline) after a visit to a call center. So fortunately my mind was made up well before this decision had to be made:

Losing a friendship is a far better option than losing a friend.

In less than a minute, my husband dialed 911 with his scant information; simultaneously I dug out a year old email with their home number on it. Our sense of mission just got stronger. The emergency operator probed to get as much information as possible;  how many people lived in the house, were there children, were there any weapons? My husband did have more information than he initially realized, though I sensed a frustration in his voice that said – “Enough with the questions. Get to the house!”

Lessons learned that prompted the call:

  1. If anyone threatens imminent suicide, TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY and call 911 for help
  2. Never assume someone else will make the call. Multiple calls are better than none.
  3. Unless specifically trained, do NOT believe you have the skills to talk a distraught person through a potentially fatal decision. Get professional help.
  4. Be specific.  When in an emergency, point to a person and say “You, in the red shirt, call 911”; do not just say “call 911”. So many people are fearful about getting involved, but when put on the spot with a directive they are more likely to follow through.

We do know now that other insomniacs and early risers made the same call, so my husband’s early morning instincts were not out of line. Then, late in the afternoon, long-held breaths were expelled when we read a status update from our friend saying he was thankful for all the support he’d received.

So what does it mean when we click on the button and accept a new friend on Facebook? It is more than an agreement to forward the latest joke, or share a great dinner menu or spew political discontent. We have agreed to be virtual friends, and that may be a looser interpretation of friendship than we reserve for our “in person” friends, but it is a responsibility nonetheless. We are, after all, our brother’s  (and our friends’) keeper.

For the person who has never experienced the despair, it’s hard to understand why a person can’t pull themselves out of the depression, or to predict which of our close or distant acquaintances are susceptible to the black vacuum of a life spinning out of control. It’s harder still to convey a believable message that there is help available and that things will get better, to someone who is in the grip of seemingly unceasing pain and mental anguish. But the saddest fact is this:

90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

They could have been helped.

As our circles of friends and connections expand, we need to be aware of who might need help, where to get help, and when to get help. The following resources can start you in the right direction.


The Samaritan’s website  states:

If you fear for someone’s safety, call 911.

If you are in crisis or suicidal and need someone to talk to call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.  

Mental Health Today offers this advice:

How to Help a Suicidal Person

by Patty Fleener M.S.W.

1) If someone threatens or makes statements referring to suicide, TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY. Many people have taken their lives when people thought their statements about suicide were “manipulative” or the person was being “melodramatic.”

2) If the person is telling you either in person or over the phone that they ARE going to kill themselves, you call 911 RIGHT NOW. Law enforcement will come to the person’s home and take them to be evaluated by a mental health person. Even if you feel in your heart, that they will not take their life, you go by what they are telling you. Don’t wait to get over to their house to call 911. You call 911 RIGHT NOW from wherever you are at.

3) If the suicidal person forbids you to call, is angry about it or upset, you call ANYWAY. If you need to go to a neighbor’s home to call, do it. If it’s in the middle of the night, wake up the neighbor and make that call.

4 ) If the person is calling from an unknown location and discusses suicide, try to find out where they are. You cannot send someone to them if you don’t know where to find them.

5) What if that person has you in confidence and makes you swear that you will not tell anyone how they are feeling? Do you keep that confidence? NO! Would you be a lousy friend, mother, etc. if you broke that confidence? NO! Suicidal discussion automatically ends confidentiality.   Click on this link for the full report:

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention American suicide rates are increasing. Latest results for 2009 showed that rates were at a 15 year high. Other suicide facts are below.

  • Every 14.2 minutes someone in the United States dies by suicide.
  • Nearly 1,000,000 people make a suicide attempt every year.
  • 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.
  • Most people with mental illness do not die by suicide.
  • Recent data puts yearly medical costs for suicide at nearly $100 million (2005).
  • Men are nearly 4 times more likely to die by suicide than women. Women attempt suicide 3 times as often as men. Click here to view.
  • Suicide rates are highest for people between the ages of 40 and 59. Click here to view.
  • White individuals are most likely to die by suicide, followed by Native American peoples. Click here to view.

Just the night before, I decided the blush was off the bloom of Facebook; it was becoming less relevant. But today I realized that FB provides a necessary forum for a crumbling spirit to voice its pain to the most casual of audiences. We just have to hope the right people are reading. Fortunately, today they were.

 ©2012 by Alison Colby-Campbell

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