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11.29.09

Does Twitter Prevent Suicide?

Demi Moore saved a Twitter user who wanted to slit her wrists and Meghan McCain intervened when a man Tweeted about his death wish. Benjamin Popper on the cries for help in the Twitterverse.

Jahmaal Fyffe was feeling down on himself. The British rapper, better known as Chipmunk, posted a melancholy message a few weeks ago to his followers on Twitter. “I want to die,” he wrote. “Is suicide easy?”

The posts quickly got the attention of friends and family, who helped the exhausted 18 year old find the time and space he needed to recover. “Thanks for the support,” Fyffe later tweeted. “I’ll be back soon!”

“On these sites you have thousands of ‘friends,’ but I didn’t expect anyone to really care. You sometimes forget that it’s real people who are getting these messages.”

Twitter is best known as a place where teenagers, celebrities, and politicians blast banal chatter to the masses, but the site also is emerging as a potential tool in suicide prevention. The ease and spontaneity of reaching out to hundreds, even thousands of relatives, friends, and onlookers at once means warning signs are broadcast to a larger social network than ever before, creating an unexpected safety net.

In April, the actress Demi Moore was credited with saving a suicidal woman who tweeted her. “Getting a knife, a big one that is sharp,” the woman wrote. “Going to cut my arm down the whole arm so it doesn’t waste time.”

Moore reposted the message to her own account and added, “Hope you are joking.” Some of the 380,000 people who follow the actress decided to follow up, tracing the post to a woman in San Jose, California, and alerting the police, who brought the woman in for psychological counseling. “The Twitterverse is on the case,” concluded Moore.

Other recent examples include Florida native Nick Starr, whose suicidal tweets were one of the first to attract major media attention; and an anonymous tweeter who contacted Daily Beast columnist Meghan McCain.

This network effect is a new paradigm in suicide prevention, said Anara Guard, deputy director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. “A cry for help is common, but now the effects are faster, broader, and more difficult to predict.”

Not every social circle online is a safety net, she said: “It depends on the community that is surrounding you.” In the recent case of Florida teenager Abraham Biggs, who committed suicide live on webcam, the online viewers were split between concern and scorn. Those watching did not know whether to take the threat seriously; they eventually contacted the police, but help arrived too late to save Biggs.

Critics often point to the anonymity of the Web when discussing online cruelty. But this privacy may also be a factor in getting suicidal people to reach out. “These kinds of dark thoughts, I could never bring them up with someone face to face,” said Starr, the Floridian whose suicidal tweets attracted major media attention. “For me it’s easier to say these things online.”

Driving out to a bridge after a night of drinking, Starr posted several tweets. “Maybe I should jump from it?” A few hours later he posted again. “Alright this is it. Parked my car. I wish everyone who ever was nice to me well. See you in the next life.”

Starr was surprised by the reaction of his online community. “People just came out of the woodwork to show their sympathy and support. On these sites you have thousands of ‘friends,’ but I didn’t expect anyone to really care. You sometimes forget that it’s real people who are getting these messages.”

Posting about his daily emotions felt natural to Starr, he said. “I’m constantly expressing myself online, both the good and the bad. There really isn’t a filter between me and the computer,” he said.

This kind of behavior is the key to understanding the power of social media, said Christopher Gandin Le, one of the country’s top thinkers on the intersection of suicide and social media. “There is a culture of sharing your feelings on sites like Facebook and Twitter that I think plays an important role in suicide prevention,” he said. “Kids today are experts on their friends, what they’re doing and how they're feeling at every moment.”

Le has worked for federal agencies and helped to write the protocols for dealing with potential suicides on sites like Facebook and MySpace. Now he runs his own consulting firm, Emotion Technology, which develops tools for public health on the Web, and he helped launch the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

“A lot of the work now is just helping users and companies figure out how to respond to this new challenge,” he said.

When Meghan McCain received a suicide threat over Twitter in July, her response highlighted the difficulty of dealing with suicide in the rapidly evolving world of social media.

“Twitter I need your help, I don’t know if this is real or not but this person just implied they want to kill themselves,” she tweeted. “Who can I alert, what should I do? Like I said, I just read this just now, I am freaked out by this Twitter message.” McCain acknowledged the man’s message and contacted local authorities.

The man later tweeted: "I am fine will be seeking more in depth help later. So embarrassed and sad. I will be fine. Never realized even strangers cared. my friend is taking me to see someone about therapy and medication... again thank you so much..."

Le would like to see suicide counseling available directly through the Web. “Right now the procedure is to send that person to the telephone hotline, but studies show that kids today are increasingly unlikely to use the phone. We need to make it easy for them to get help right from their computer.”

Programs that could scan user profiles for warning signs and alert professionals are part of the future Le envisions. Researchers in New Zealand announced in October that they had created a program that sorts through posts to identify users at risk of suicide.

MySpace is now one of the top sources for traffic to the Web site of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “A single profile sent 300,000 individuals to the hotline’s Web site,” said Le. “What we have to do now is educate people to take threats of suicide seriously and to direct those who need help to professional care. If we can teach people what to do, the social Web could be a powerful tool with the potential to save lives.”

One challenge is determining when Twitter threats should be taken seriously. Early Monday morning, a Twitter user apparently posing as Lindsay Lohan's dad and going by the name of TheMichaelLohan threatened to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. "Fiance just left me, my whole family hates me, I spent Thanksgiving with my mom I just cant [sic] do any of this any more,” he wrote. As Lohan’s lawyers investigated the claim, the message was picked up by blogs, both highlighting the trend of suicidal Tweets and potentially undermining other serious suicide threats.

Ben Popper is a reporter born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His work and thoughts can be found at benpopper.com