Facebook Battles Suicide: Will New Crisis Counselor 'Chat' Succeed?

Facebook has introduced a new feature that instantly links users who display suicidal tendencies to a crisis counselor, but many people wonder if the effort will see suicide rates lessen.

The program uses Facebook’s “chat” system and is the site’s latest tool for improving safety.

Public policy manager at Facebook Fred Wolens spoke to The Associated Press saying, “One of the big goals here is to get the person in distress into the right help as soon as possible.”

Facebook’s suicide prevention tool has been in place since this summer, but it is now “expanding a partnership with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,” according to CNN.

Recent statistics indicate that nearly 100 Americans commit suicide daily. With over 800 million users, the social networking site has previously announced new ways of minimizing bullying, offensive content and fake profile in order to enhance security.

Speaking to The Christian Post, Executive Director at Heartlight Ministries Mark Gregstown said that Facebook is “taking a step in the right direction” with the new feature.

“It’s a valiant effort without any doubt,” said Gregstown of Facebook’s counselor program. “But I don’t think it is a big enough move to see any changes.”

Gregstown explained that young users on Facebook have become desensitized to posts that relate to serious matters. He also said that simply offering the option of a chat would not help someone who is seriously considering taking their own life.

“Face-to-face human contact is what people need,” said the director. “The friends around them who see the post ought to call them and talk them off the ledge,” continued Gregstown, who added that Facebook users often do not take suicidal posts seriously due to desensitization.

Gregstown believes that another reason for today’s youth being desensitized is because of “reality shows that aren’t real.”

“Kids have become accustomed to television today which sees so much sarcasm and cutting remarks as a way of communicating,” said Gregstown, who thinks that some suicidal posts on Facebook are disregarded as sarcastic or joking remarks instead of the dangerous messages they often are.

The suicide prevention feature on Facebook follows a few high-profile suicide cases, which involved notes on the site. Tyler Clementi, a freshmen student at Rutgers University, leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge in Sept. 2010. The student was distraught over his roommate allegedly capturing an intimate encounter between Clementi and another man on camera.

Clementi posted on his Facebook page, “Jumping off the gw [sic] bridge sorry.”

A woman in the U.K. who was suspected by police to have died Christmas Day 2010 had posted on her Facebook page: “Took all my pills be dead soon so bye bye every one [sic].”

In addition, authorities in Pittsburg, Calif. reported last month that a man had posted a suicide note on the social media site before he killed his wife and in-laws, then himself.

Facebook is joining the ranks of Google and Yahoo who already place the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline above all suicide-related searches.

Because Facebook is considered a public forum, information posted to the site is not protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum clarified what exactly that means while speaking with National Public Radio.

“Information on a person’s mental state might be subpoenaed from Facebook,” said Dixon. Nevertheless, if someone on Facebook is considering suicide, insurance is just a minor detail. Facebook as well as Lifeline continue to make strides in preventing the tragic deaths from occurring.

Crisis center workers at Lifeline are available 24 hours a day to Facebook users who select the chat option, and speak with dozens of people every day through the social media site.