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Suicide threats on social media: Advice from a mental health professional

Most people don’t know what to say or do when someone makes a statement like Pete Davidson's in “real life.”
Image: Pete Davidson
Pete Davidson on Late Night with Seth Meyers on Sept. 27, 2018.Lloyd Bishop / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

When “Saturday Night Live’s” Pete Davidson’s posted, “I don’t want to be on this earth anymore” and "I'm doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don't know how much longer I can last” on Instagram, friends, fans and followers reacted just as they probably would have if he’d told them the same thing on the phone. Some panicked — perhaps remembering the suicides of other people in the limelight, like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade — earlier this year. Some got snarky and actually joked about it. Others offered public expressions of love, hope and help.

It’s disturbing and hard to know what to do when a Facebook “friend” or a person you follow on Instagram or Twitter threatens to commit suicide on social media. But the truth is that most people — even some professionals — don’t know how to respond when someone makes that kind of statement in “real life.”

As a psychotherapist, I often see clients who suffer from the pain of depression, some of whom have expressed a desire to end their lives. Although most people who suffer from depression do not try to kill themselves, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide was ranked as the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2015, the most recent date for these statistics. Numerous studies have shown a wide range of reasons that someone thinks of committing suicide, but the holidays are one of the times that depression, sadness and loneliness begin to take hold of many people.

Talking about a wish to die does not always mean that a person is actually going to hurt themselves, but it is a request for you to pay attention, and it is important to acknowledge that you’ve heard their pain. When you talk in-person, you can sometimes get cues about their state of mind from their body language, tone of voice, or the context in which they are making the comments. But that information is not available online.

Social media always tends to amplify anything, good or bad, which also makes it harder to assess what’s happening. And adding to the difficulty, an online statement demolishes boundaries, bringing the personal into the public, and making us all equally privy to the inner turmoil of someone we might not know well — or at all.

Not knowing anything about Davidson, I certainly cannot say what was going through his mind when he posted about his thoughts. Putting it on Instagram could have given him some relief from his pain, and the reactions of his friends and followers might given him some sense of being heard or understood. But some of the snarky or less than kind reactions might have intensified what he felt, and as a result things might have gotten more painful and more complicated for him.

Despite the initial hiccup when it seemed that some of his followers thought he was joking, people got at least one hugely important thing right: They let him know that they heard that he was suffering and that they cared. Pain is there, whether someone has threatened suicide once or a hundred times, and it is often hard to hear, recognize or address it. But once you do hear it, it’s important to let the person know that you are there, and that you hear that they are hurting. On social media, that often means a public statement of the sort that lots of people sent Davidson.

The question everyone asks is: What should you do next?

When someone talks about wanting to die, they are expressing a feeling that they might not be able to talk about in other ways; they may not be actually planning to commit suicide. But helping does not mean that you should try to be a therapist. Whether it’s an Instagram post or Facebook announcement, a personal email or a phone call, your first and main goal should be to help them get trained professional assistance, which is not as always as easy it sounds.

Because there are so many different reasons that people consider suicide, it is crucial that the person be put in contact with a professional who specializes in these issues. If you know them, you can offer personal help to make contact with their therapist, psychiatrist or medical doctor.

It’s good to express concern and caring, but remember that social media exaggerates everything. Loving comments can feel over the top and meaningless, so keep your caring words gentle and genuine. And understand that, along the same lines, subtlety doesn’t exist online. Teasing and snark can come across as mean and hurtful, and an already-vulnerable person can feel deeply wounded by something you intend as just good-natured ribbing. So don’t do that.

You can reply that someone’s thoughts and feelings have meaning. and encourage them to contact a suicide hotline number. (In the U.S., they can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK [800-273-8255] to reach a trained counselor.) You could also consider adding something neutral like, “This is one of the places that knows how to help you deal with these feelings.”

If you know the person on a more personal level, you can offer to come over to be with them and, once you’re with them, if it seems that they are going to act on the impulse, try to get them to go to a hospital emergency room. It’s important that they not be alone, but well-intentioned fans or vague acquaintances who try to make personal contact can make things worse, not better.

Finally, keep in mind that such a public declaration of someone’s pain can quickly turn into public humiliation. Someone who has, perhaps impulsively, shared his or her inner turmoil with the world might be terribly embarrassed and ashamed about all of the attention that comes as a result of the sharing. As a follower, you can let them know that you still care and that you understand what they were saying to be a way of asking for some help. And then, encourage them to get that help.