A New Tool Helping Youth Safely Discuss Suicide Online

teen using cell phone for social media

As social media has become the preferred method of communication for many kids and young adults, it’s also a platform recognized for relaying information faster and wider than most of us can comprehend. Because of that, social media offers an incredible opportunity for disseminating helpful knowledge. The flip side of that coin is that it can also enable the spread of harmful messaging just as far and just as fast.

One of the most sensitive and precarious topics often miscommunicated online between young people is suicide. When a peer struggles with suicidal thoughts, or tragically dies by suicide, it is natural and necessary that it is processed and discussed by those close to them. Social media widens that circle exponentially, and inappropriate sharing may endanger others who are susceptible to the same risk.

New guidelines for safe online interaction about suicide have recently been introduced in the United States. Originally developed and released in Australia by Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, #chatsafe: A Young Person’s Guide for Communicating Safely Online About Suicide was adapted for the U.S. through a collaboration with The Jed Foundation (JED) and the Stanford University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences’ Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing. The #chatsafe guidelines are the world’s first to be informed by evidence, and developed in partnership with youth. 

Vicki Harrison, MSW, is the program director for the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, and explained the need for such online education and support for teens and young adults who grapple with suicide related thoughts, feelings and behaviors. If widely adopted, Harrison says #chatsafe guidelines could save lives.

1. The #chatsafe project and its guidelines for young people to safely communicate online about suicide have been in place in Australia since 2018, and are now being introduced in the United States. What are your expectations for how they will be received here?

My hope is that these guidelines will create awareness about the fact that the way people talk about suicide actually matters an awful lot and doing so safely can potentially save lives. Yet we haven’t, up to this point, offered young people a lot of guidance for how to engage in constructive interactions about this difficult topic. Hopefully these guidelines will demystify the issue somewhat and offer practical suggestions that youth can easily apply in their daily interaction.

2. How prevalent is talk of suicide on social media for kids, teens and young adults?

Suicide comes up across social media in a variety of contexts. Media reports of celebrity suicides and their photos spread like wildfire across feeds, young people blog about their stories of suicidal ideation or attempts as part of their recovery process, and after a death, friends and/or family frequently set up memorial pages or groups to honor their loved one. 

3. We know young people are bombarded with all kinds of media on a variety of platforms, but what happens in social media conversations, particularly regarding suicide, that make them so critical?

For vulnerable young people, exposure to content or images of self-harm and suicidal behavior can actually increase their risk of harming themselves. Suicide is a complex phenomenon, but research tells us that media exposure plays a significant role, adding one more risk factor to the mix. The amount of media young people consume compounds their exposure and can increase risk for copycat attempts. 

4. Were young social media users asked to help craft these guidelines, so that they reflect their real-life experience?

The #chatsafe guidelines were developed with a youth advisory panel who were heavily involved in the process from start to finish. Based on youth feedback, the guidelines were intentionally drafted in a way that they can be utilized as suggestions and reminders of how to approach the topic of suicide while interacting online, without being too prescriptive.

5. The #chatsafe guidelines offer tips on avoiding potentially dangerous talk about suicide, but also ways to be helpful and supportive. Would you give a couple of examples of Do’s and Don’ts and why they’re important?

One of the simplest takeaways from the guidelines is that it is OK to talk about suicide online and it is not a topic that needs to be avoided—especially in the context of reaching out to someone who may appear to be struggling. Many young people feel more comfortable reaching out for help over social media so it can be a critical conduit for connecting them with resources and support. That said, making jokes about suicide or sharing too many posts about a recent suicide—including a celebrity suicide—especially specifics about methods or speculation about reasons why can be upsetting and harmful to vulnerable individuals and should be avoided.

Photo by Robin Worrall on Unsplash

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