HomeArticles​Facebook adds a new feature to red-flag suicide bids before they are...

​Facebook adds a new feature to red-flag suicide bids before they are carried out

The social networking site is responding to the growing number of cries for help on its pages by including tips and links for users in distress.

Facebook plans to address high suicide rates by adding a feature that will allow people to help friends they think may be suicidal. More than 40% of the posts on the site include some form of negative feelings.

Globally, more than 800 000 people commit suicide every year, according to the World Health Organisation. It is the leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Three-quarters of suicides occur in poor and middle-income countries. 

In South Africa, 13.6% of unnatural deaths among teenagers (aged 10 to 19 years) are because of suicide, according to a 2009 Medical Research Council survey. This is the most recent national data available. 

In a bid to bring down the suicide rate among its users, Facebook is introducing a new tool. By using the drop-down menu, a user can flag a post about self-injury or suicide. The person reporting the post will have the option of sending a direct message to the friend in distress, or to a mutual friend.  

Facebook is liaising with mental health organisations in each country to offer online support.

“We are hoping to empower friends and family with the tools to do more than just liking or sharing when they see these types of posts,” says Cassey Chambers from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag).

If Facebook evaluators believe a post is a call for help, the person whose message was reported will be offered a list of options the next time they log in to their Facebook account. For South African users, these options will include tips and resources provided by Sadag on what to do if the person feels suicidal. 

“Besides encouraging the person in distress to connect with us, we will also provide them with self-help tips and advice to work through negative feelings,” says Chambers. 

A 2016 study by Facebook found that teenagers and young adults “exhibit a greater proportion of negativity than older posters”. A 2012 study in the American Journal of Public Health found an emerging trend in which people use social media to leave suicide notes.

Ina Skosana was a health reporter at Bhekisisa.