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Facebook Updates Suicide Prevention Tool: How Does It Work?

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Facebook has teamed up with several mental health organizations to develop a new tool that helps Facebook users prevent suicide.

The tool, developed in conjunction with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Now Matters Now, Save.org, and the University of Washington's School of Social Work's Forefront: Initiatives in Suicide Prevention, is aimed at both people who suspect their Facebook friends might be suicidal and people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

On the observer side, users who see one of their friends post something that indicates they may be thinking of harming themselves will be able to flag the post, after which they will be given options on what to do, such as contact the friend, contact another friend for support, or get in touch with a trained professional at a suicide hotline.

"Often, friends and family who are the observers in this situation don't know what to do," says Facebook content strategist Holly Hetherington. "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."

Once the post is flagged, a team of Facebook employees from the United States, Dublin, and India will be checking the post to evaluate if it is troubling. There will be no bots trying to decide if a person is suicidal or not, real human beings will assess the situation. If they find the post troubling, Facebook will contact the person the next time he logs in.

"Hi Nicole, a friend thinks you might be going through something difficult and asked us to look at your recent post," Facebook would say.

Then, the user would be presented with clear-cut options about the next steps they want to take, whether they want to talk to someone or get access to suicide prevention materials. If the user decides to get in touch with someone, Facebook will let him choose if he wants to call a friend, send a friend a message, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

"We care about our users, especially the ones that are at the hardest place in their life," says Rob Boyle, product manager at Facebook, in an interview with the Seattle Times. "Forefront told us that the one thing that people need is feeling connected, and the thing that Facebook is really good at is connecting people. That's what inspired us."

There would also be videos where people who have experienced suicidal thoughts share their stories as well as a section that contains relaxation techniques such as going for a walk, visiting a library, or baking. Facebook will also help users find a local self-care expert in their area.

Facebook will roll out the suicide prevention tool for the web and mobile "over the next couple of months." And while the tool may not be perfect, it will be worth it if it can save at least one life.

"In the world of suicide prevention, we know that being connected is a protective factor," says Jennifer Stuber, an associate professor of social work at the University of Washington. "People are on Facebook 24/7, so there's an opportunity to actually connect a suicidal person with someone they have a relationship with." 

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