LONDON — Suicide prevention groups are increasingly focusing their attentions online, partly to fight back against Internet websites they say can facilitate suicide.
In an article published Friday in the medical journal Lancet, senior editor Niall Boyce examines strategies by charities to strengthen their anti-suicide messages on the web, fearing it may be acting as a vehicle through which suicide pacts are being formed.
In September, two Britons met online in a suicide forum and made plans to kill themselves together. A few hours later, the pair were found dead inside a car.
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Last month, the British group Samaritans introduced its newest strategy on Google: a box with a phone number now pops up whenever anyone types the word "suicide" into a search.
In April, the U.S. group National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also began advertising their phone number on Google suicide searches. Lifeline also hosts an online gallery where people whose loved ones killed themselves, or those who survived suicide attempts, can share their stories.
"We don't exactly know how people go from typing 'suicide' into search engines to suicidal behavior, but online intervention is essential," Boyce said.
For decades, Samaritans has posted their helpline number on phone booths at common suicide spots such as bridges and train platforms. "The number on Google is a virtual extension of that," Boyce said.
The organization is also talking to social networking sites, including Facebook, about possible web applications.
However, Nicola Peckett, a Samaritans spokeswoman, warned human interaction is still key.
"You can't just catch suicides by doing a keyword search," she said. "Often only friends or family members who know the individual will be able to tell if somebody's post on Facebook is something we need to worry about."
Peckett said the system would allow people to either message Facebook authorities to decide if the police should be called, or have Samaritans contact an individual asking if they would like to talk.
Experts said there is too little data about whether the Internet encourages or prevents suicide to know which online initiatives would work best.
"Anything that prioritizes the work of (prevention) groups should be welcomed," said Rory O'Connor, head of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Group at the University of Stirling. He wasn't sure if it might be possible to detect suicidal symptoms online, but said people worried about a loved one should watch for any unexplained changes in behaviour.
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