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Dealing With Online Suicide Threats

Posted: November 15, 2013 23:09:55 • By Natasha L. • 2166 words

Suicide is not a light subject, which means it's often not discussed at all. I've experienced those feelings first-hand, and even I'm uncomfortable talking about it, much of the time. But, a discussion has recently come up among people I know, and given both my personal experience with the issue, and my professional experience with legal procedures related to online activities, I wanted to weigh in.

The dilemma is, what do you do if someone you know online is threatening suicide, and you're geographically separated from them? It's a tricky situation, because of the separation between online interaction and real-life, and requires a great deal of finesse to handle it in a way that will do the most good for the suicidal person. Additionally, there are a lot of misconceptions about what law enforcement agencies can actually do, so blanket advice like "call the police" doesn't really work. Suicide happens when a person's pain exceeds their methods of relieving pain, so any action that reduces their coping methods will be counter-effective in the short term, and will significantly prolong their recovery long-term.

So, here are some actions you can take to get help to a suicidal person as effectively as possible.

Assess the Situation, and Keep Them Talking

No one talks about committing suicide if they're not thinking about it, so get any notions of "they're not serious" out of your head. It's true that some people online have said they would kill themselves, and then didn't, but the initial statement of intent is almost never false. The reason this happens is because there's a lot of distance between desire to end one's life, and actually taking effective action to do it. Some people have the desire, but not the means. Some start to take action, then back off. Others are rescued by an outside force or coincidence. And for some people, when this happens, they're so ashamed and embarassed that they said anything that they just lay low for awhile, afraid to face their social circles again. So, never assume that someone's not serious just because others have said they were ending their own lives, and didn't for some reason.

That said, it's worth trying to find out just how likely the person is to take effective action in the immediate future. Everyone who discusses a desire to end their own life is certainly thinking about it, it's too stigmatized and emotionally charged to be used flippantly. Are they calm and collected, or emotionally out of control? Are they talking about using a weapon/method that they don't readily have access to? For example, if someone is crying hysterically and talking about buying a gun, they're probably not in as much immediate danger as someone stoicly discussing an overdose of a drug you know they've been prescribed. Both of them are equally serious about their desire to end their lives, but only one has the means to do it within the next six hours.

And, ultimately, the best thing you can do for suicidal person remotely is keep them talking. Start a voice chat, if you're comfortable doing so. See if they want to play a game. But most importantly, try to make the computer screen more interesting to them than self-harm. It's very easy to walk away from an electronic device, but at the same time, we're so trained to give them our attention that simply having a conversation can be enough to help a person out. However, avoid being judgemental, angry, threatening, or negative, because if someone's at a point where they want to end their own life, they'll have zero patience for anything they don't want to hear, and they can be very easy to push away. Be supportive, be positive, and try to find something that would give them hope. It doesn't have to be anything big; in many cases, when a person is that low and feeling that hopeless, the smallest thing can help.

Call Them

Yes, I know, it's a big meme that no one uses the phone anymore, and I sometimes feel like I'm the only person who prefers phone calls over texting. But, a phone conversation is more personal, and harder to walk away from than a text-based conversation. Plus, it's harder to ignore a ringing phone than a push notification if things get really bad, and if you have a phone number, it's much easier for law enforcement to step in if needed (more about that later).

Find A Local Friend

It's rare (but not unheard of) for someone to not have any nearby friends at all, so if you know someone who can physically go to the person, give them a call. If you don't know someone, basic social media datamining can help you out. Who do they talk to often? Do they have anyone bi-directionally friended who lives in the same city? The difficulty of doing this varies based on what web services they use; on sites like Tumblr and Youtube, it can be borderline impossible, but on Twitter and Facebook, it's a breeze.

However, if the suicidal message wasn't posted publicly or semi-publicly, don't get someone else involved without talking to the suicidal person first. If there's an immediate threat, you can send someone over regardless of how the person responds, but it's best to get their consent first. Plus, sometimes merely bringing this up can talk them down.

Serious Intervention Actions

Before employing one of these tactics, ask yourself this question: Do I feel like this person will be dead if I don't do something, anything, to physically stop them? If the answer to that question is "yes", proceed. If the answer is "no", the next options are more likely to make things worse than better. If the answer is "maybe" or "not sure", collect more information, or try more of the tactics above this line.

Contact Parents/Local Family

This is only relevant if the person lives with, or near, their parents or other relatives. For most people reading this, the idea of one's parents intervening in a suicide situation is pretty awful, but consider this: If someone lives with their parents, calling the police will alert their parents anyway, so starting with them gives better flexibility, and will probably get a more understanding reaction from them.

How do you reach someone's parents? Simple, really; if you know their address (required for calling the police anyway, as I'll explain in the next section), search it. Thanks to the internet, landline phones (which most parents still have) are practically public domain, so a search for an address with a landline phone will usually return a phone number. Alternately, Facebook can be very revealing about who someone's related to.

Preferably, though, look for siblings. If the person has any, they'll usually be either in the same geographic location, or readily able to contact the person by pretty much any means available. And, they'll have all the real-life information needed to reach out to parents or law enforcement.

Call the Police

This is a controversial option that, while valid, should be reserved for a last resort. If law enforcement gets involved in a suicide situation, it's almost a guarantee that the person will be in lockdown at the nearest psychiatric facility for at least 72 hours. And, while this would theoretically be a good thing for someone seriously suicidal, psych facilities in America are profoundly horrific. I once took a friend to one, because I felt that if I didn't, she wouldn't be alive in the morning. She admitted herself willingly to the hospital, but the resulting trauma caused more psychological damage than the event that caused her to be suicidal in the first place, and brought back every nightmare and deepest fear I've ever had about such places. It was so bad that our friendship has taken considerable time to rebuild, and I still regret taking her there. The worst part? This was at an upscale hospital in one of the most affluent cities on the east coast (they had 24-hour valet parking). Most people who feel this way are not so geographically fortunate.

So, I consider law enforcement intervention and emergency psychiatric facilities to be an absolute last-resort in these sorts of situations. However, it should not be ruled out entirely, because if someone is in immediate danger of self-harm, it is a legitimate option to keep them safe. If you choose this action, you'll need more preparation than most people seem to think is necessary.

Know as much about the situation as possible. Most notably, the police need to know if the person is considering using a gun or knife (approach with caution and threat management), poison/OD (roll specialized medical support or hazmat), and how responsive they are or how certain you are that the person is in immediate danger (priority of response).

Know their legal name and home address. You can't call the police in some random state, say "RainbowDash74357 on Twitter is going to kill herself!", and expect a prompt response. Mostly because law enforcement agencies have no way of connecting an online nickname to a real person. If you did this, and they actually tried to track the person down, the process would work something like this:

  1. The agency requests, in court, an emergency subpoena to get IP address records from Twitter. Sometimes, a magistrate can issue these types of court orders, but it usually has to go through a judge, which rarely happens outside business hours. About the only thing that will get a judge out of bed to sign an emergency subpoena is an abduction/child endangerment case.
  2. The subpoena is served on Twitter's legal team, which also generally don't respond outside normal business hours. Because it's an emergency subpoena, it'll get a priority response, and usually fewer questions or legal entanglements, so the data will be returned in a day or two. Non-prioritized legal process can take weeks, months, or even longer if the company's legal team challenges it.
  3. The data from Twitter is given to a computer forensic specialist, who uses the account's IP address history to get a list of which service providers to contact next. Silly and trivial work, yes, but the average officer/agent is not trained to do this, so a specialist must do it. Additionally, local PDs outside major metro areas rarely have this sort of person on staff.
  4. The agency requests an emergency subpoena for subscriber information based on the IP addresses. Repeat steps 1 and 2 with the person's ISP or cellphone provider.
  5. This will yield an address, which the police can now respond to with a welfare check, about a week or two after the incident.

A cellphone number can sometimes be used for a semi-immediate response, since there are special subpoenas for cellphone records, which usually get faster results, and can retrieve location data in some cases. But, at best, that's a 6-8 hour process even for a tech-savvy agency, and usually 1-3 business days.

If you must call, use the narrowest-jurisdiction agency that's likely to understand the concept of "someone I'm talking to on the internet is suicidal". If they're a college student living on/near campus, call the university police. If they live in a medium-to-large city, call the city's local police. If they live in a rural area or small town, you're probably better off calling the state police; they may not have the manpower for a priority response, but they're more likely to understand what you're asking for, and can refer the case to a local agency for priority response if they can't do it themselves.

Lastly, if you involve law enforcement, keep in mind that they're still cops, and will expand the scope of the call if they have probable cause to do so. If the person has illegal drugs, or prescription medications without a prescription, it will be confiscated, and charges might be filed. If the person has a gun, or certain types of swords/knives in some areas, they probably won't anymore after this call. If they have a vehicle with lapsed registration, it could get impounded. These aren't necessarily dealbreakers, but they should be factored into the decision to send law enforcement officers knocking at their door. For example, if someone is a heavy marijuana user in a state where that hasn't been legalized, sending the police to their house to respond to a suicide situation is probably not going to end well for that person.

Whatever you do for a suicidal person, just keep in mind that suicide is a consquence of one's pain exceeding one's coping mechanisms. Keeping a person safe from themselves is, of course, a priority, but if they're not actively, immediately trying to hurt themselves, causing more pain without adding more coping mechanisms makes the equation less balanced, and ultimately makes the situation worse. In other words, don't add to a suicidal person's pain unless it's the absolute last resort to keep them from hurting themselves.