Can Facebook Prevent Suicide?

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People who post suicidal thoughts on Facebook can be flagged by their friends and kicked off Facebook until they read about suicide prevention.

When people write about harming themselves on Facebook, their friends can ask Facebook to review the post because it’s “hurtful, threatening or suicidal.” A team of Facebook employees from America, Dublin or India will take a look at the flagged post to determine whether it is troubling, and then essentially lock the user out from their account until they review options related to suicide prevention.

Those include suicide prevention materials, links to contact Facebook friends or a suicide-prevention hotline.

Facebook employees said they hoped the tool will help — either directly or indirectly — whether an individual is going through a tough time and doesn’t know where to turn, or their friends want to help but don’t know what to say.

“Suicide right now is like AIDS in the ’80s,” said Rob Boyle, a Facebook manager, at his company’s Compassion Research Day on Wednesday. “It’s this huge issue, but people are afraid to talk about it.”

Right now, a limited number of users in the U.S. have access to an updated version of the tool. Facebook plans to roll out the service to the rest of the country in the coming months. Concerned friends simply click “report” next to the post and are given some options. Friends will see tips including a suicide prevention hotline and can choose to message the person who wrote the troubling post. If they choose that option, Facebook has a pre-written message ready to send. People can also opt for Facebook to intervene.

If Facebook’s worldwide team determines that a user’s post is troubling, the user will need to review a page of options the next time they log in. A private message on the page will greet the user, then say “a friend thinks you might be going through something difficult and asked us to look at your recent post.” Then, the user will have the option to contact someone, look at suicide prevention tips or skip the message.

There are roughly 41,000 suicides in the U.S. each year, outnumbering the number of homicides or traffic deaths. Suicide prevention experts said they hope the Facebook effort will be another way people can seek help.

“This is a good start,” said Eve Meyer, executive director for San Francisco Suicide Prevention.

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