Ask NCFY: How Can Youth Workers Address Suicidal Posts Online?

Photograph of a woman looking at a computer screen.

Q: At my youth-serving program, we stay in touch with youth over Facebook and Twitter. What should we do if we come across a suicidal posting on a client’s Facebook page or Twitter feed?

A: Your response to a post should be similar to what you would do if a young person said something concerning to you in person, says Maureen Underwood, clinical director at the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. First, assess whether there is any immediate danger before beginning a conversation to help you decide what to do next.

“I think [an online post] puts more responsibility on us as the people reading it to respond in a way that’s non-judgmental, that doesn’t minimize or over-dramatize,” Underwood says. “It’s about a very balanced response that encourages the person saying it to open up and share more about it because the more we know about it, and the more they know about it, the better able you are to get the kind of help you need to address it.”

If it seems like the young person is in immediate danger, you should call 911 and attempt to confirm his or her location by reaching out. Less urgent posts can be used as a jumping off point to find out what challenges the youth is facing.

Just as you wouldn’t try to get a youth to talk about suicidal feelings in a crowded room, Underwood says you shouldn’t have sensitive conversations with young people on public forums like a Facebook wall or news feed, or on Twitter. Instead, she advises concerned adults to use what they learn online to initiate private, one-on-one conversations—whether in person, on the telephone or online.

Some youth may prefer to talk via instant message service, like the ones offered by Google, Facebook, Skype and many email services. Others may choose to communicate by email. For those who want to talk face-to-face, you can use Skype, Google+ and other providers of online video conferencing to talk to youth even if they can’t—or don’t want to—come to your office.

When you talk to the young person, whether in person or online, avoid asking why they want to die, Underwood says. Instead, open up the conversation to talk about the underlying problems, for instance by asking the young person what is going on in their life that makes them think death is the answer.

In addition to being a listening ear, talk to your supervisor and refer youth to mental health services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers an online mental health treatment locator.

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