Facebook Teams Up with Samaritans to Prevent Suicide

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Facebook is stepping in to help users who post messages suggesting they want to hurt themselves. The social network has partnered up with with U.K.-based Samaritans, a group focused on suicide prevention, in order to make it easer to notify professionals if someone is showing worrisome behavior.

“Through the popularity of Facebook, we are harnessing the power of friendship so people can get help. As a friend you are better placed to know whether someone close to you is struggling to cope or even feeling suicidal,” Chief Executive of Samaritans Catherine Johnstone said in the press release. “We want to remind people that if a friend says that life isn’t worth living, they should always be taken seriously. Facebook is a part of daily life for so many of us and we must make sure that people online have support when they need it.”

Facebook will decide whether to alert authorities or have Samaritans contact the owner of the profile in question if another user contacts them with concerns. The URL of the comment in question, full name of the user and any details about the networks they belong to are necessary to file a report to prevent hoaxes. While Samaritans operates in the U.K., it is part of an international organization called Befrienders Worldwide, suggesting that this program could be extended internationally. In the U.S., users who report questionable posts are encouraged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and when appropriate, Facebook contacts Lifeline, and they forward the information to the appropriate local suicide prevention center.

Facebook’s policy has always been to notify police if someone threatens bodily harm. However, many high profile cases have slipped through the cracks. Charity worker Simone Back died of a drug overdose after she posted on Facebook that she was going to kill herself. It took a day to notify authorities, especially since some of her 1,048 “friends” began to poke fun at her and call her a liar. After his roommate posted a video of his homosexual encounter online, Rutgers’ student  Tyler Clementi wrote on his Facebook “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” and killed himself. A father in Pinon Hills, Calif. posted a murder-suicide note for him and his 9-month-old son, complete with a picture of of their death dates. Even with the advance notice, no one prevented their deaths.

The Atlantic Wire points out that it might be a move for Facebook to improve their social status since the negative portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and subsequent stories about the creator has somewhat tarnished the company’s reputation. They argue that having users tattle-tale on other users for the content of their messages makes people have to always fear that “Big Brother” is watching.

While their points are valid, had someone taken these posts seriously and action been taken, these four deaths may have been prevented. If a person is reaching out in any way for help – even if it is on a forum like Facebook – they deserve as much help as they can get. Yes, Facebook might have other side intentions besides helping their users, such as trying to prevent negative press. Still, overall I think this is a good thing even though it does invade on some privacy issues, because some of these cases call for necessary intervention to prevent a tragedy. Sure, some of these calls will be false alarms that may mean a lot of unnecessary work, but if Facebook’s intervention with the help of Samaritans makes even one person think twice about killing themselves, I’d call it a success.

NOTE: A previous version of this story said that Facebook in the U.S. did not contact suicide prevention hotlines directly. Facebook reached out to Techland and notified us that they work with Lifeline in the U.S. and Canada.

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