Steven Petrow Special for USA TODAY
Published 11:53 p.m. UTC Jun 8, 2018
What do you do when you see a post or a photo on social media that seems to be a cry for help?
It’s hard not to think about such a question with the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and a recent government report that suicide rates have risen nearly 30% since 1999.
I didn’t know how to answer that question two years ago when editor Burgetta Eplin Wheeler posted a photo of herself on Facebook. She was lying flat on her back, exhausted, her face swollen and red from the heat. The caption: “Mowing my grass today a feat of sheer will…. [I] t took all I had.”
Wheeler had previously written about suffering from depression (as have I), and a sixth sense in me told me to reach out and ask if she was OK. I was hesitant, with all kinds of reasons not to, starting with: We weren’t friends. And, it wasn’t my business.
Still, I sent her a private message: “Hey, I know we don’t know each other very well but are you ok? This post (of yours) seemed to have a double meaning. As I know we both suffer in our heads I’m reaching out to you.”
Wheeler messaged me back: “I’m not ok. I’m not ok at all…. [But] I’m not about to kill myself. I have no plans.” Then, she added more softly: “Just typing this has helped. Thank you, sweet Steven. I appreciate you reaching out.”
I’m still not sure what pushed me to overcome my fear of contacting Wheeler, although I think it was that I’ve had three friends and a close relative take their lives in my lifetime. Each death remains a mystery to me, but if I’ve learned anything it’s this: It’s better to reach out and find out that they’re fine — rather than not fine.
Many of us have social networks with hundreds of friends on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and often stay in more frequent contact with these virtual contacts than our own physical neighbors. What should we be looking for as signs that someone might take his or her life?
Doreen Marshall, vice president of programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and a psychologist, said she’d be concerned if someone’s behavior changed drastically.
“Suddenly posting more, posts that have dark or have suicidal content, or announcing an exit from social media that is done in a troubling way” are warnings, she said via email.
More: ‘We’re so extremely busy:’ More calling suicide prevention hotlines since celebrity deaths
More: Anthony Bourdain highlights the rising suicide rate among middle-aged adults
More: It’s called ‘compassion fatigue.’ It’s wise to take breaks from bad news — here’s how
Having gained access to lethal means such as a firearm is a red flag if someone has shown other tell-tale signs of depression or other mental health conditions, Marshall says. There is rarely one reason someone takes their life, but she advises people to stay aware of friends who have mental health concerns, which may or may not be diagnosed, as well as difficult life events, breakups, financial losses, legal issues or other health concerns.
If you are concerned, she suggests reaching out right away via phone for a conversation, private message or text. Don’t assume someone else will, a thought that had crossed my mind after Wheeler’s posting.
As it turned out, Wheeler later told me I was the only Facebook friend of hers who did make contact.
But what do you say? Marshall is all for the straightforward approach.
“Ask the person directly if they are having thoughts of suicide,” she said.
If they indicate yes, try to be with them so they won’t be alone, or enlist the help of a local friend to visit. If they are currently in treatment with a mental health professional, encourage them to make contact. If not, be ready to share the phone numbers for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK) or Crisis Text Line (text ‘TALK’ to 741741).
And if time seems of the essence? Then Marshall recommends calling 911 or the local police and asking them to make what’s called a “well check,” to determine whether they’re OK — or not.
None of this is easy, explained Eric Marcus, whose father took his own life in 1970 at age 44 and who wrote the book, Why Suicide. “We put a lot of pressure on people to determine who is truly a suicide risk,” he told me. “It’s an awful position to be put in.”
On Facebook itself, concerned friends can visit the “Suicide Prevention” page, which lists steps to be taken if you’ve encountered a direct threat of suicide on the platform. There’s also a link to a list of national suicide hotlines. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has a similar page of resources.
Facebook also posted a video of its suicide prevention resources on its Safety Page.
I talked with Wheeler to get her advice. She’s very much a proponent of people reaching out because it’s just “some acknowledgement that there are other people out there. It’s so minor, but it helps you feel not so along when you’re feeling so alone.”
I ended my original chat with Wheeler in 2016 with this message:
“I’m glad I reached out. I hear you. I empathize with your pain. I’m facing my own ‘life situations’ right now … and, man, they can sit on top of you, if not suffocate you.”
She replied: “Thank you, Steven. I have my hand in no buckets. Just trying to hang on. Thank you again.”
My advice: When in doubt, reach out.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255.
USA TODAY columnist Steven Petrow offers advice about living in the digital age. Submit your question at [email protected] You can also follow Petrow on Twitter: @StevenPetrow. Or like him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow.
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