Suicide Prevention Awareness: The role of social media
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. This week, we are highlighting an excerpt from an article published by The Denver Post on two recent teen suicides. Both teens attended schools in neighboring school districts.
Earlier this month, two teens in neighboring school districts took their own lives. One of these young men, an eighth-grader, shot himself, and the other, a junior, jumped off a mall parking garage. Both boys posted on social media just before their deaths, panicking friends who tried to help but could not save them.
Middle-schoolers “snapped” their friend’s location and called police when they saw the 13-year-old’s post with a suicide note and a gun, but he had already pulled the trigger.
The role social media plays in teen suicide and depression is complex, says Sarah Brummett, director of the Office of Suicide Prevention at the state health department. "It connects people going through similar problems even when they aren’t close geographically, and yet, on the flip side, the filtered selfies and endless posts of others having fun can plummet teens’ self-esteem."
Regardless, social media “is the main outlet that this generation has grown up with” and it’s how they “communicate their deepest thoughts and feelings,” says Stephanie Ratner, a Mental Health Center of Denver therapist. She teaches kids how to respond when someone they know is “testing the waters to see if anyone cares.”
Take it seriously, Ratner says. “Don’t assume they are doing it just for attention.” Often the best response is, “I’m really concerned. I’m going to message you.”
Just as important, Ratner tells teens not to try to solve it on their own and instead to involve their parents, their friend’s parents, a teacher, a principal or 911. She encourages parents to watch the shows their teens are watching, monitor their social media accounts and ask more questions.
“Kids are turning to social media because they don’t feel like they have a safe, supportive person to tell their deepest fears,” Ratner says. “The biggest thing for adults is to not shame kids for feeling this way. It’s hard being a teen. It’s hard growing up with social media. A lot more kids have suicidal thoughts than we realize. We’re just not asking the right questions.”
Social media can be valuable when kids post their plans online — and it gives others a chance to help, said Julie Cerel, a University of Kentucky professor, licensed psychologist and president of the American Association of Suicidology.
However, kids who have friends who attempted or died by suicide are more inclined to have their own suicidal ideation, she said. And it doesn’t always have to be a close friend — sometimes the kids most at risk are those who know the teen more peripherally but thought of themselves as similar.
“I think it’s because starting in early adolescence, kids look to their peers much more than their families for support and acceptance,” Cerel says. “The jarring experience of losing a peer to suicide changes their whole world view.”
Social media can expand these risks. First, it can be a vehicle for often anonymous bullying, worsening a teen’s mental health. But also, when a teen posts about suicide or suicidal thoughts on social media, it can potentially reinforce the notion that suicide is a way to deal with psychological pain, she says.