Facebook users share countless details about their personal lives, from where they're going on vacation to what they're eating for dinner — and occasionally, feelings of dark despair, even thoughts of suicide.
As the world's biggest social network, with more than 1.39 billion users, Facebook is uniquely positioned to provide online resources and support to help suicidal people. That's the goal of a new collaboration between Facebook and researchers at Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention, an interdisciplinary organization based in the University of Washington's School of Social Work.
The effort was announced Feb. 25 at the fifth annual Compassion Research Day at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
Working with Forefront and other mental health experts, Facebook enhanced its suite of tools to support suicidal people and tell those who see and report suicidal posts on Facebook how they can help. When someone sees a post that suggests its author might be considering suicide, they can click on a dropdown menu and report the post to Facebook.
That reporting activates a series of responses. The person who flags the post will see a screen with links that allow them to message the potentially suicidal person, contact another Facebook friend for support or connect with a trained professional at a suicide helpline for guidance.
Facebook will then review the reported post. If the poster is thought to be in distress, a series of screens will launch automatically when that person next logs onto Facebook, with suggestions for getting help. The responses link to a number of positive options, including videos from Now Matters Now, an online program started by Forefront research scientist Ursula Whiteside that uses real-life accounts of people who have struggled with suicidal thoughts to provide research-based coping strategies.
The tools aim to both direct suicidal people to resources and alternatives and also guide concerned friends or family members through a situation most are simply not equipped to handle.
"Often, friends and family who are the observers in this situation don't know what to do," said Holly Hetherington, a Facebook content strategist working on the project."They're concerned, but they're worried about saying the wrong thing or somehow making it worse. Socially, mental illness and thoughts about suicide are just not something we talk about."
Stephen Paul Miller knows that all too well. Now Forefront's operations manager, Miller lost a friend and college classmate to suicide five years ago. One night, Miller noticed a Facebook post from his friend saying that things were too much, that he couldn't take it anymore. Alarmed, Miller resolved to call his friend in the morning. He died that night.
"The thing that breaks my heart the most about this is that I think it was just episodic. I don't think he wanted to die," Miller said. "But I was not trained. I did not know what to do."
The initiative was launched following a summit Facebook hosted about a year ago to discuss how technology companies could most effectively combat suicide. Facebook was already working with researchers on promoting compassion and preventing online bullying, and wanted to do something similar around suicide prevention.
"We realized there's a lot we don't know. We are by no means experts in this space," said Jennifer Guadagno, a Facebook researcher.
So Guadagno reached out to Jennifer Stuber, a UW associate professor of social work who started Forefront after her husband died by suicide in 2011. Forefront's focus on science-based approaches to suicide prevention and its affiliation with one of the world's top research universities appealed to Facebook, Guadagno said.
"We really loved what the team was doing," she said. "These are people who really, really care about this and could offer some great insight."
Teams from Facebook and Forefront began working together last fall, starting with discussions that defined and framed the issue. The conversations included suicide attempt survivors from the Now Matters Now project, who were instrumental in helping Facebook understand the spectrum of suicidal thoughts and how language commonly used around suicide can be insensitive — for example, saying someone "commits" suicide, the same term used for carrying out a crime.
Whiteside, who has herself struggled with suicidal thoughts, said when family or friends express fear or judgment to a suicidal person, they can unwittingly increase an already overwhelming sense of aloneness.
"People just don't know what to do, and why would they?" she said. "As a society, we really need support in knowing how to respond to someone who's suffering, and our work with Facebook is a first step."
Edwina S. Uehara, dean of the UW School of Social Work, praised the initiative. "We are very proud of Forefront and excited about the difference that the Facebook-Forefront partnership can make for millions of people who struggle with thoughts of suicide," said Uehara, who holds the Ballmer Endowed Deanship of Social Work.
"The partnership reflects the UW School of Social Work's core aims: to harness all the empirical knowledge, imagination and skill at our command to solve seemingly intractable societal problems, in partnership with others committed to the task."
Stuber said Facebook has an opportunity to increase social media's value as a force for good.
"In the world of suicide prevention, we know that being connected is a protective factor," she said. "People are on Facebook 24/7, so there's an opportunity to actually connect a suicidal person with someone they have a relationship with. Facebook is extremely proactive in what they're trying to do. "
One advantage of the Facebook tools, Miller said, is that they can be used by anyone: a concerned friend like him, a grandparent, a colleague.
"You don't need to have a degree to be able to meet somebody where they are in their pain and connect them to a resource," he said.
"You just need to know that there's somebody who can help you facilitate that connection, and that's what the Facebook project has the ability to do. This has the potential to save so many lives."