Facebook throws potentially suicidal users a Lifeline

Facebook teams up with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to offer help to people who are thinking of taking their lives and a referral option for people who worry about a friend in distress.

Lidia Bernik, associate program director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Facebook announced today that it's working with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on a program designed to help save lives.

The new service will enable Facebook users to click on a link and be taken to a page where they can enter into a live chat with a suicide prevention specialist. There is also a reporting link where users can alert Facebook, if they see something on a person's profile that causes them to think that the person is in severe distress. Facebook will send a message to that person to encourage them to contact the Lifeline.

The company isn't using technology or people to look for suicidal posts. It is relying on users to reach out. In the past, Facebook would contact the Lifeline with the name, e-mail address, and city of anyone who had been reported as potentially suicidal, but with this new system, the communication goes only to the person in distress, according to Lidia Bernik, associate project director of the Lifeline (scroll down for the full podcast interview).

Service lets users chat with a suicide prevention specialist. Screenshot by Larry Magid/CNET

The Lifeline has been working with Facebook since 2006, according to Bernik, "to basically reach out to individuals who are flagged or reported for suicidal content." She said the Lifeline has heard from its users that "a lot of people would rather communicate via chat or text, as opposed to calling." She added that "this is an attempt to reach people in a medium where they are most comfortable."

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached via chat or by phone at 800-273-TALK Screenshot by Larry Magid/CNET

Bernik said "it's probably pretty surprising to folks how many people will disclose thoughts about suicide on Facebook." She said Lifeline encourages people to "reach out directly to their friends, and offer them the Lifeline and offer them support, but if they don't feel comfortable doing so, they can also report it, and Facebook will do the same thing."

In a guest post linked from the Facebook safety page, Dr. Regina Benjamin, the Surgeon General of the United States," said, "I'm excited about the new initiative to augment its response to potentially suicidal members by offering the opportunity for a private chat with a trained crisis representative from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline in addition to providing the Lifeline's phone number."

Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, which receives financial support from Facebook. ConnectSafely was involved in some early meetings between Facebook and suicide prevention experts.

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