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Social Media Can Help Find And Help Individuals At Risk Of Suicide

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On January 18, experts in mental health, suicide prevention and social media met with military officials at the Pentagon to discuss how social media can find individuals at risk for suicide and offer them help and resources. 

 
Director of education and outreach at the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah AnnaBelle Bryan presented her research that day.

“Social media has become a part of who we are," she said. "People tend to express things on social media that they would never say aloud. It is a reflection of who we are because of what we post or what we add to any of these platforms of social media.”

Bryan served in the military for twenty years as a public health technician and executive officer at worldwide military bases. She also served as NCOIC of public health in Iraq in 2009.

“I started to read the things our service men and women were writing about how they’re feeling. It was very disturbing to me that my brothers and sisters in arms are feeling like this," she said. "I had a great 20 years service, and it just saddens me each time I hear another service member has taken their life. That got me very interested in doing as much as we possibly can either through intervention or reaching out to people. If there is any way we can help veteran or active duty person or their family members, we are here for that.”

She and other researchers examined the social media accounts of hundreds of military service members who passed away between 2010 and 2011. The results were striking.

“Can we predict when an individual might be thinking about or dying by suicide? Using that year of data, we were able to predict at six months prior to death, three months, one month and one week prior to death," Bryan explained. "We were able to predict who might be at risk for suicide. We were able to determine who had died by suicide versus who had not died by suicide.”

Social media can also be used to offer help and resources to individuals with harmful thoughts or actions. Bryan says a fellow research, Dr. Craig Bryan, executive director for the National Center for Veterans Studies, recently released findings showing a 75 percent decrease in suicide attempts among active-duty service members who engaged in crisis response planning.  The planning included identifying a person's personal warning signs, along with coping strategies, social support and professional crisis services.

“That’s one of things that we did find in our research. Many times an individual would write something down or type something out and they had support. They had people reaching out to them, but sometimes it takes a little bit more than a response on a message," she said. "If anyone is ever concerned about what someone has posted on Facebook, and you can just see by five or six posts prior, if there’s kind of this little pattern going on, reach out to them. They might not be suicidal, but they might be having a crisis of some other sort and just need to talk to someone.”

A free, 24/7 confidential service is available for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for support, information, and local resources. For veterans or service members in crisis, call or text the confidential toll-free Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.