The deaths of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain have highlighted America’s rising suicide rate and the need for suicide prevention, but it doesn’t always come from talk therapy or a suicide hotline. Tech companies including Facebook and Google and app developers are creating tools to help struggling people during their most vulnerable moments.
“Technology and social media have become a big part of people’s lives,” said Shari Sinwelski, the associate project director at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “So we need to take efforts to reach people where they are.”
Here’s a look at the latest innovations:
This app keeps people close to their trusted support network
Developed in partnership with Link2Health Solutions (L2HS), the administrator of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is a subsidiary of the nonprofit organization, Mental Health Association of New York City and the California Mental Health Services Authority, a coalition of county governments, the application known as “MY3” gives users the ability to stay connected to their chosen network of three contacts when they are in a time of crisis.
Users pick three contacts they feel comfortable reaching out to when they’re in a state of crisis. The app advises users to select at least one mental health professional in addition to two of their friends.
“In general a professional is more trained to deal with clinical related issues and provide someone with clinical support,” said John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, who was involved in the development of the app and has advised Facebook and Google in their own efforts to help prevent suicide.
Having said that, friends can provide a different form of support that professionals cannot. “Professionals are less likely to say, ‘I love you and I need you and I’m here for you,’” Draper said.
After the individual picks out three people to include in their network, they are then prompted to create a safety plan, which has six separate sections. For instance, one section asks users to identify three behaviors that serve warning signs that they are thinking of suicide. The final section of the safety plan instructs users to complete the following sentence: “The one thing that is most important to me and worth living for is…”.
As Draper explained, the structure of the safety plan acts as a form of self-care. Even if they have not spoken to someone about their thoughts of suicide, it can prompt someone to consider how they should go about getting help.
Currently, there are few suicide prevention apps available. However, apps like Stay Alive, which was developed by the UK-based charity Grassroots Suicide Prevention and Operation Reachout, offer comparable features to the MY3 app for those seeking suicide prevention support for themselves or for their loved ones. It was developed by a company known as The Guidance Group and is aimed toward providing support for veteran and military families.
Google won’t help you search for ways to kill yourself
Typically, when you begin to search for something on Google you do not need to write out the entire search before what you intended to search for is displayed directly below. The mechanism responsible for this is a Google feature known as autocomplete, which is designed to streamline searches.
“Autocomplete is designed to help people complete a search they were intending to do, not to suggest new types of searches to be performed,” Googled explained in a blog post.
However, for searches such as “the fastest way to kill yourself” the autocomplete feature will not function. Predictions on such searches, which imply harmful or dangerous behavior, are removed, according to Google’s autocomplete policy guidelines.
However, it’s still possible for a user to manually complete the search on their own. When someone does that, the first search result that appears is a link to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The goal, according to a Google spokeswoman, is to provide people in unsafe situations with free and reliable support as quickly as possible.
For searches that indicate a higher level of intent to self harm, such as “fastest ways to kill yourself painlessly,” Google’s search results will immediately display an icon prompting the user to chat online with a professional counselor from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, as well its phone number and a link to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
But Google doesn’t stop there. If someone simply searches for symptoms of depression, the search engine may lead them to a PH-9 questionnaire, which is a standard tool doctors use to screen for depression.
Facebook wants to help users spot red flags
Sandwiched between a Facebook post of your colleague’s new kitten and wedding photos your old college roommate, you may encounter a friend’s post expressing suicidal thoughts. If you were to report the status update to a Facebook administrator, thanks to a tool implemented in 2015, a private message will be displayed on the poster’s timeline informing them that another user has reached out to Facebook on their behalf and will suggest various support resources.
Most recently, Facebook has also implemented a pattern recognition algorithm technique to detect posts or live videos that express thoughts of suicide to help initiate immediate support from first responders. The move follows instances of people broadcasting their suicides on Facebook Live.
“We’ve found that there is a base ambivalence when an individual considers killing themselves,” Draper said, “by offering them one last call to help we are very aware of the person behind the screen who is thinking, ‘Alright, I’ll give it one last chance.’”
Are you at risk or do you know someone who may need help? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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