Facebook announced Tuesday an expanded version of a program to help prevent suicide among users, the latest in a tech solution for one of society's often-unreported problems.
The program was "developed in collaboration with mental health organizations and with input from people who have personal experience with self-injury and suicide" and aided by Forefront, Lifeline, and Save.org, according to Facebook. Like the rest of Facebook, the new program relies on existing social connections.
"If someone posts something on Facebook that makes you concerned about their well-being, you can reach out to them directly – and you also can also report the post to us," wrote Antigone Davis, the company's global head of safety and researcher Jennifer Guadagno in the Facebook post announcing the change. "And, as of today, the resources we send to the person who posted something concerning will include an expanded set of options. People can now choose to reach out to a friend, contact a helpline, or see tips."
A team will be alert 24/7 to take these reports, and they are trained to prioritize those who might be considering suicide. Facebook offers the individual of concern a message with options to privately message a trusted friend or get in touch with a counselor, as well as offering tips such as "get outside," "be creative," or "read a new book."
The program coincides with a 30-year high for suicides in the United States, and Facebook certainly has the reach to help. Record show 72 percent of Americans use the social-networking site, Mark Isaac reported for The New York Times, but even with the best of intentions, a program such as this may concern digital privacy groups and regular users who don't expect monitoring.
"The company really has to walk a fine line here,” Jennifer Stuber, a professor at the University of Washington and the faculty director of the suicide prevention organization Forefront, told the Times. “They don’t want to be perceived as ‘Big Brother-ish,’ because people are not expecting Facebook to be monitoring their posts.”
Facebook insists this is just another helpful tool to do what it is designed to do – bring social networks together.
“People really want to help, but often they just don’t know what to say, what to do or how to help their friends,” Vanessa Callison-Burch, a Facebook product manager with the project, told the Times.
The company's original suicide-prevention program launched in 2011 with the support of the US Surgeon-General, but it was available only in the United States and Canada. The latest version is being released to Facebook accounts around the world, translated into all the languages in which Facebook is available.
Facebook's worldwide reach gives it a unique ability to impact people from diverse backgrounds. In India, which the World Health Organization reports has the world's highest rate of suicide and depression, mental health advocates are hailing Facebook's move as a rare opening for discussion on mental health, Sonam Joshi wrote for Mashable.
“Mental illness and thoughts about suicide are just not something we talk about openly," Anna Chandy, chairwoman at The Live Love Laugh Foundation, one of India's most visible mental health organizations, told Mashable. "Facebook is used by Indians from diverse backgrounds, so there is an opportunity to connect someone who is struggling to a person who will relate and empathise with them."