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What to do when someone you follow on social media seems like they need help

How to help when someone on social media seems unwell. (Photo: Getty Images)

According to the CDC, suicide rates in the U.S. are up 25% since 1999. It’s a grim reality, made even more public after the very high-profile suicides of Avicii, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain. While we can’t always know who is suffering or struggling, one window into people’s lives is social media — and while not everyone will use it as a tool to knowingly or unknowingly cry for help, we must always be aware in case those within our social media communities do require assistance.

A few months ago, I went through a breakup and decided to live tweet the process. As a writer who covers mental health and suffers from depression, I thought that I could shed some light on mental health and relationships by doing so. It was a disaster. Everything was fine until I started getting sad about the breakup. My tweets gradually focused more on sadness and depression than healthy coping mechanisms. I posted about finding a reason to live. My mood plummeted and I wrote about misery and crying in bed all day. I made myself feel worse with all the tweeting, and eventually I had to seek treatment for my depression.

The average person’s Twitter storm might not lead to something so dramatic, but my experience is hardly unique. Every day, it seems that a different public figure has an emotional meltdown on social media. Whether expressing hatred, depression or anger, these social media breakdowns are common in their emotional intensity if not in their nature. And there is a good reason for this. Social media exposes us to negative feedback and increased social competition, which leads to emotional stress. A recent study concluded that social media use has a high correlation with stress in young adults. The greater a respondent’s exposure to social media, the higher their experience of anxiety symptoms.

In short, social media stresses us out, and I probably should’ve kept my feelings away from public channels. Even Facebook admits that the site has a detrimental effect on users’ mental health. In such an emotionally volatile environment, all social media users would be wise to understand what they can do if they witness a meltdown in their online community. Here are some basic steps to help you help someone who seems to be in crisis.

1. Know the signs of distress.

A huge red flag is a change in the tone of someone’s social media posts. Are they suddenly morose where they once were chipper? Are they preoccupied with death and violence? This kind of negativity is associated with depressed mood and is cause for concern.

2. Know when to intervene.

Every sad post on social media doesn’t signal that something is wrong. But a pattern of negative posts using certain words might mean trouble. Dr. Victor Schwartz of the Jed Foundation, which works to prevent suicides, told Mic in an interview: “Something that feels different from the person’s usual content or the way they’re expressing him or herself, that should get your antenna up. Think about the person’s circumstance.” If someone’s pet died, there is less cause for concern than if their posts are suddenly maudlin for no apparent reason. If someone mentions suicide or taking their own life, make sure they call 911 or do so on their behalf, if you can. They can also contact the suicide prevention hotline 24 hours a day, seven days per week.

3. Ask.

There’s no harm in asking someone if they need help. Tell them that you’ve been reading their posts and that you’re concerned about them. Tell them that you’re worried that they might hurt themselves, if that is the issue. Mental illness may have a stigma, but you’ll be doing someone a favor by looking after their wellbeing. Several psychological studies have shown that having social support vastly improves resilience to emotional stress. Asking someone about their mental health is a way to provide support and perhaps bring attention to someone’s condition. And even if you’re wrong about your suspicions, or someone doesn’t want help, you can always text or message them some resources and an offer to talk in the future.

4. Listen.

Listening is another way of showing support, making sure to be non-judgmental and to communicate understanding. If you’ve had mental health struggles of your own, feel free to share them, but keep the focus on your friend. The mental health advocacy group Mental Health America reiterates that “it helps a lot for someone to know they aren’t alone. Make sure you don’t switch the topic of conversation to your struggles though; focus on their needs.” Keeping the focus on them will help communicate that they are free to confide in you and that you are open to them.

5. Utilize social media resources.

The major social networks have information about such emotional issues as suicide, bullying, eating disorders and more. This material is available in the “Safety” section of the sites and offers connections to national and platform-specific resources. Facebook offers content about abuse and suicide prevention. Instagram has resources related to eating disorders. Twitter provides support for online abuse and self-harm, which can exacerbate, cause or signal a serious mental health situation.

6. Plan for follow-ups.

Make sure that you can connect your friend to the next step in their support plan, be it a mental health professional or other resource. Connect them to their local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Refer them to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for telephone counseling and other resources. If you’re local, offer to accompany your friend to a therapist appointment or other relevant meeting.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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