Suicide and Facebook: A window into the mind of those who die

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24 2013 1:14 p.m. MST

Facebook says it will provide suicide-prevention researchers a look into the online lives of those who kill themselves in the days leading up to the act.

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Facebook says it will provide suicide-prevention researchers a look into the online lives of those who kill themselves by allowing access to their posts in the days leading up to the act. The project will take at least a year to gather and analyze data, but is expected to help family, friends and social medial sites themselves spot trouble signs.

The social media giant said it will give SAVE.org access to the pre-suicide postings of individuals. According to Elizabeth Lopatto, of Bloomberg News, "The Jan. 11 death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, the latest casualty in a series of high-profile suicides in the technology industry over a decade, has spurred new interest in understanding the triggers that compel people to cut their own lives short. In the past, researchers had to overcome protective friends and family to get information."

Swartz, 26, created the popular Web syndication standards called RSS for Really Simple Syndication when he was a teen. He co-founded Reddit and a group against Internet piracy bills. He was indicted on charges of illegally downloading information from academic journals.

SAVE.org's executive director and a nationally noted psychologist, Dan Reidenberg, told Bloomberg that the project with Facebook "changes the dynamic." Friends may not ask questions because they worry about intruding, he said, adding his group's goal is to teach people to look for signs. But first, they have to understand what online posting signs might look like.

It's not the only effort by online giants to prevent suicides. Google the word "suicide" and the first thing that pops up is the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 which also provides access to a crisis line for veterans.

Twitter told Lopatto that it doesn't research suicide prevention, but its data could be used by others to do so.

Facebook itself has a page to help people figure out how to report suicidal content. Besides offering an online form to call such postings to someone's attention, it provides advice to respond to direct threats by contacting law enforcement in the individual's community or, in the case of enlisted folks, contacting the military.

Even U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin included social media in national suicide prevention plan updates announced last fall. As part of that, she asked community groups and individuals to be active in suicide-prevention efforts, "including utilizing Facebook."

"It's not uncommon for people to act erratically on Facebook when contemplating suicide, and some even go as far as to announce their wishes to die," wrote Dana Kerr for CNET. "In 2009, a 30-year-old Brooklyn man stated that he was ending his life on Facebook and carried through with it. That same year, a 16-year-old boy in England told a U.S. Facebook friend that he was contemplating suicide and his life was saved."

"The new Facebook service will allow users to report suicidal comments they see online from friends," Reuters reported on some earlier steps Facebook had taken on the topic. "The website will then send the potential victims an email urging them to call the hotline as well as chat confidentially online with a counselor."

The just-announced Facebook project focuses on at least 20 people in one Minnesota county who took their own lives and researchers will be combing through their online posts from the days immediately before their deaths.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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