Facebook has partnered with Samaritans, a 24-hour charity that provides confidential non-judgmental emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which could lead to suicide. The social network is working on a system that allows users to report friends who they think may be contemplating suicide.
Anyone who believes their Facebook friend is struggling to cope or is feeling suicidal can fill out a form with the URL of the page where the friend posted worrying messages (such as status updates or wall posts), their full name, and details of any networks they are part of, in order to notify the site's moderators. The report goes through Facebook's Help Center, after which the social network notifies Samaritans so that the group can offer expert support for the friend in need. Suicide-related alerts are escalated to the highest level.
"Through the popularity of Facebook, we are harnessing the power of friendship so people can get help," Catherine Johnstone, Chief Executive of Samaritans, said in statement. "As a friend you are better placed to know whether someone close to you is struggling to cope or even feeling suicidal. We want to remind people that if a friend says that life isn't worth living, they should always be taken seriously. Facebook is a part of daily life for so many of us and we must make sure that people online have support when they need it."
A test version of the system has been available for three months, according to the BBC. Samaritans say several people made genuine reports and there were no hoaxes during the test phase. The help organization noted the new system was not launched in relation to one specific case, but to raise awareness of the ways in which people could get help.
In the past, more than one Facebook user has announced their intention to commit suicide by posting on the social network. If a user is at risk of imminent bodily harm, Facebook's policy has always been to notify the police. The company does not, however, monitor everyone's postings: a worrying post needs to be reported first. There have been cases where Facebook friends commented on a suicide-related message, but nobody raised the alarm.
Samaritans has 18,500 volunteers that respond to 5 million calls from people feeling down, depressed, anxious, or suicidal. Samaritans is currently running an awareness campaign on Facebook to give advice on supporting vulnerable friends, including how to spot the signs of distress and how to start a difficult conversation. The organization is encouraging users to Like their Facebook Page where they can find updates on the charity's work and how to become a supporter.
Last month, Facebook teamed up with Justin Bieber and MTV’s A Thin Line to help stop digital abuse (cyberbullying, online stalking, textual harassment, and so on). Moves like this one are encouraging, since as the social network continues to grow, well, I'll just quote Uncle Ben from Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility."