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When to Worry: Suicide and Social Media Warning Signs

It’s fun to follow the lives of our friends on social media, but there may be times when a post gives you pause, and makes you fear that your loved ones are signaling that they intend to harm themselves. Let’s get right to the point: If a friend or family member’s message suggests that the person may be suicidal, act immediately.

We spoke with Megan Schabbing, MD, medical director of Psychiatric Emergency Services for OhioHealth Behavioral Health Riverside, to better understand the signals of suicide on social media, the signs of depression and risk factors for suicide in young people and adults, and how to respond.

When to act

“Often, people who intend to harm themselves will make an explicit statement to their social media circle or to a specific individual in a text — they say they want to die or kill themselves, talk about shooting or cutting themselves, or wonder if things would be better if they didn’t wake up,” says Schabbing. “Other people may send a goodbye message that sounds permanent.”

Schabbing stresses that intervention in these situations is absolutely necessary. “If someone makes a suicidal comment, take it seriously, take action. This is an emergency situation. Call 911. Make contact with them to find out where they are and get them to an emergency department.”

What to look for

“People who have psychiatric disorders — depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental disorders — face an increased risk of suicide,” says Schabbing. “Signals of a problem can be social withdrawal, loss of pleasure in activities once enjoyed, low energy, and not sleeping enough or sleeping too much.”

Schabbing says children and teenagers often have difficulty articulating anxiety or depression, so it can manifest itself in other ways. “In children, depression and anxiety can present as physical complaints, with frequent visits to the school nurse for a stomachache or headache,” she says. “Teenagers can have inappropriate guilt, far beyond what would be considered normal, and say things like ‘I’m a bad kid,’ or ‘I’m a bad person.’” “Acute stressors can also be a risk factor for suicide in teens — events like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, failing an exam, or being bullied online or in school”, says Schabbing.

“For everyone, social media may create pressure to fit in, which can cause anxiety.”

What you can do

“If you think someone in your life is having trouble coping or may be struggling with mental illness, especially your children, talk to them,” says Schabbing. “Ask them what’s bothering them, or whether something has happened, and keep communication open.”

Schabbing also advises parents to keep up on their children’s social media activities and be mindful of their screen time. “It’s important to follow your child’s social media accounts. Be in touch with what they’re saying and what’s being said to them, and consider limiting their social media use to a common area where you can keep an eye on what’s happening. I also recommend having a time at home when everyone unplugs from screens, and parents should set the example.”

“And remember that there are therapists and counselors for children and adults who can help manage anxiety and stress,” says Schabbing. “It’s also worth discussing with your family physician, because there can be physical causes of depression, like vitamin deficiencies or anemia. The most important takeaway is to talk — if you’re having trouble, tell someone. And if you see someone struggling, online or offline, help them get the help they need.”