When Scott Vincent became a school resource officer at Summit High School in Bend, he was amazed at how many kids came to him with questions about suicide. At suicide prevention meetings, he’d hear about resources available to help teens, but none of the students seemed to know about them.
So in 2012, Vincent and a Bend Police colleague developed a smart phone app with links to various suicide prevention and mental health resources. It took a few years to convince officials at Bend-La Pine Schools to support it.
“Everybody was afraid of contagion,” he said. “If we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen.”
But when local suicide prevention experts endorsed a revised version, the district relented and planned to make the app available on school-issued iPads in the spring of 2018. But on Dec, 15, 2017, two Central Oregon teens took their lives in a single day, one in Bend, and one in Redmond. Vincent called his contacts at the school district.
“We’ve got to do something,” he told them. “We’re not doing anything, and it’s way too many kids.”
School officials agreed, and entering the winter break, they pushed out the app to 11,000 iPads issued to students in sixth grade and higher. So far, the students have used the app on the iPad more than 14,000 times, and downloaded the app to their smartphone 300 times. So far, students had used the app 88 times to request someone check on a fellow student experiencing depression, contemplating self-harm or considering suicide.
With teens increasingly living in a digital world, suicide prevention experts are taking the fight against suicide online, leveraging social media tools to reach kids in ways they have never tried before. But it’s a steep learning curve for adults who often struggle to understand how youth use social media and to keep up with the latest trends. While studies suggest the worst aspects of social media can exacerbate the risk for suicide, they’re beginning to realize that social media could amplify prevention efforts to unseen levels.
“The key here is getting information to kids in a manner in which they communicate,” Vincent said. “Kids live on their phones. Everything is an app. You take away their phone, it’s like taking away one of their limbs.”
Where the teens are
In 2014, on the second-to-last day of school, a 15-year-old student at Reynolds High School in Troutdale shot and killed a fellow student before turning the gun on himself. With students leaving for summer vacation, district officials were concerned that students weren’t responding to letters and emails offering them counseling and support. They asked the state for help, and the state turned to Youth ERA, a nonprofit group that was making waves in the world of youth engagement.
The group took a day to come up with a rudimentary plan on how to help. But they needed to get the message out, and clearly, letters and emails weren’t working.
“Every community is different, and this is where things start getting really complicated when you’re talking about social media,” said Martin Rafferty, executive director of the Eugene-based group. “In one part of a city, all of those students are using one app, and then you go to another part of the same city, and all of those students are using another.”
Youth ERA sent its peer support specialists, young people who had dealt with their own mental health issues, to Troutdale to learn what apps Reynolds students were using.
It turned out to be Whisper, an app that allows people to anonymously post their secrets and talk to others about it. Rafferty knew the app would terrify school or public health officials.
“This was truly the wild, wild West. No rules, no government, no moderators, no one to call and complain if there’s a problem,” he said. “But this is where the youth were.”
Youth ERA put together an event inviting Reynolds students to try out a virtual ropes course on devices, using the Whisper app to promote it. About 220 students and parents attended the event.
That built a relationship between Youth ERA and the Reynolds students that persists to this day, a conduit through which they can disseminate help and support them when they’re going through tough times.
“You make one of these connections,” Rafferty said, “and you can just keep it with the young people forever.”
Rafferty said that in his experience, many of the professionals working in suicide prevention remain wary of technology.
“The first introduction of technology to this field left a really bitter taste in the mouths of these professionals. The electronic health records were a nightmare for them,” he said. “So when we say technology, when we say social media, they froth at the mouth.”
The field is woefully behind the times, but that’s starting to change, he said.
YouthLine, a peer-to-peer suicide prevention hotline operated by the nonprofit Lines for Life, interacts with youth by phone, text, email or online chat. The Portland-based group recently opened a satellite office in Central Oregon, staffed by teens from 4 to 10 p.m.
Facebook’s for old people
Other suicide prevention efforts in Oregon have tried using social media only to find it’s not easy to master. When suicide prevention coordinators in Polk County wanted to use social media they asked their bosses for permission to get Facebook on the county’s computers.
“So we went to the schools and said ‘We got Facebook!’” said Stephanie Gilbert, the county’s early learning and family engagement supervisor. “And they told us, ‘Facebook is for old people.’”
They told their supervisors they needed Twitter and Instagram.
“Now that we have all these things, none of us know how to use them,” Gilbert said. “So what are we going to do?”
Working as part of the Mid-Valley Suicide Prevention Coalition, they created videos and posted them on social media. Trouble was, they were really dry, Gilbert said.
“No one watched those videos,” Gilbert said. “I think they still have under a hundred views on them.”
They decided to go to the experts and launched a video contest offering youth a $50 Best Buy gift card for the best suicide prevention video. The only requirement was it had to include the hashtag #oktoask. The winning video was emailed to them by a high school senior who was enrolling in film school in the fall.
The coalition secured funding for five videos, and again asked teens for advice. They didn’t want to be bombarded with statistics, and the video had to be short and to the point. Anything longer than a cat video, the students told them, they just weren’t going to watch.
Two of the suicide prevention videos were made by students at Dallas and Central high schools and were shown in each school as part of a schoolwide campaign.
“After that video played in that school, guess who students went to talk to?” Gilbert said. “It was those kids, because their faces were part of that project.”
Afterward, they posted the videos on Facebook. “That’s where the parents are.”
Several years ago, Dee Anne Everson, the CEO of United Way of Jackson County, was talking with high school students as part of a push to increase high school graduation rates.
“I don’t care how many of us graduate,” one of the students told her. “How about you keep us all alive?”
Everson was dumbstruck by the girl’s comment. The student told her about her friend, Zach, who had started showing signs that something was not right in his life. He started edging away from friends, stopped going out. One night, he took down all his social media accounts.
The girl called Zach’s mother and they discovered that Zach had planned to take his life that night.
“This young woman launched an idea that I couldn’t let go of,” Everson said.
She engaged the mental health experts in her county and they decided to create a suicide prevention campaign. They tapped a local ad agency owned by Bill Maentz to fashion the message.
Maentz spent hours watching YouTube videos of suicide campaigns from around the world.
“I watched some in languages I don’t know how to speak, just to get the body language,” he said. “Two hours later, I was so depressed. There’s not a lot of hope out there in campaigns that deal with suicide.”
Maentz came up with a plan to present the success stories of local people who were saved from suicide because someone spoke up. The videos ran on television and were pushed out on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. They garnered more than 1 million impressions.
Six months later, the organizers realized Snapchat was now the hot platform, and pushed the videos out again. Within just a few days, they had 200,000 Snapchat views.
Viewing social media as an ally rather than the enemy for suicide prevention is a major shift for the field. Studies have shown that social media use is a risk factor for suicide and has been shown to increase feelings of social isolation. But surveys have also found that up to 40 percent of social media users have experienced cyberbullying, and often there’s no place for them to hide.
“When a youth is being bullied, in the old days, they go home and they get some respite,” Rafferty, the Youth ERA director said. “But in 2019, if you’re being bullied, it never stops and that effect is damning.”
The irony is that youth today seem to have hundreds of social media friends yet find themselves more alone than ever. Surveys found that in the 1980s, teens reported having one to three close friends they trusted with their innermost secrets. Today, it’s zero to one.
“One of the risk factors in suicide is not having any social connections or any friend groups,” said Daniel Kriz, a psychologist with the St. Charles Medical Group.
Ten years ago, Kriz found himself brainstorming with parents about ways to help their kids find friends. For many parents, it’s difficult to admit their child is having trouble making friends, he said.
The solution he developed was Friendometry.com, a sort of online dating site for parents seeking friends for their kids. Parents complete an anonymous profile on the site, and get connected with other parents in the area whose kids have similar interests.
“If it can bring kids at risk of having difficulty making friends and give them this extra boost or another place to locate and find friends, then it’s going to decrease those individual’s risk for suicide,” Kriz said. “It’s not going to completely ameliorate it. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. But I think it’s actually a big piece of the puzzle.”
Angela Doescher of Bend used the site to help find friends for her 11-year-old son, Stryder. He uses a wheelchair and needs supplemental oxygen, so he can’t go out and play sports like most of his classmates.
“He gets sad because he doesn’t have friends over to play,” she said.
Through Friendometry, she connected with local parents and found other kids his age interested in playing video games. Eventually, they formed a video gaming club that meets two days a week in a community center.
Suicide hotlines and other prevention strategies mostly rely on those contemplating suicide to reach out for help. But various groups are now trying to use algorithms and artificial intelligence to scour social media for potential clues of suicidal ideation and to bring help to them.
When Youth ERA went back and looked at the social media posts of teens who had died by suicide, they found some commonalities. Those young people had left a trail of clues that Youth ERA staff realized could be used to identify suicidal intentions.
“Out of 30 young people who completed suicides, maybe 28 of them followed a similar enough path that would make them different than another 60 or 70 youth who posted ‘I want to kill myself,’ or ‘I’m going to kill myself,’ but never follow through,” Rafferty said.
Youth ERA actively watches the social media accounts of youth whose parents have expressed concerns that their children might be going through a difficult time. Staff work late into the night checking on those social media feeds, and activating a safety plan that’s created for each youth. That could be notifying a peer support specialist that has a relationship with that teen or calling a parent.
Harnessing the power of online tools to intervene with at-risk youth is the next great frontier for suicide prevention. Facebook uses an algorithm to identify suicidal ideation, and calls emergency services when it believes a user may be at high risk. The social networking company has now sent more than 3,500 notifications to local emergency services, although the outcomes of those interventions is less clear.
Many have criticized the effort as an invasion of privacy, calling for greater transparency in how Facebook identifies at-risk folks.
Others have gotten around privacy concerns by using an opt-in model. Qntfy, a mental health analytics company, recently launched OurDataHelps, which asks people to voluntarily provide their social media data from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and Tumblr, as well as their mental health and suicide history. The company is now analyzing that data to determine what social media language is correlated with suicidal intention.
None of this will be easy but Rafferty believes we cannot wait any longer.
“Whenever there’s a loss, if it’s a young person or an adult, the entire world loses something. So there’s an urgency here,” he said. “Unless we amp up the noise to match that urgency, we’re losing youth every day.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2162, firstname.lastname@example.org