UW researchers help Facebook with suicide prevention

Heather Graf reports.

SEATTLE -- Facebook rolled out a new feature Wednesday designed to put suicide prevention tools at your fingertips. It's a unique approach to suicide prevention that a team of researchers at the University of Washington played a big part in.

It was back in July when a representative from Facebook reached out to Jennifer Stuber. She's a UW associate professor whose husband died by suicide in 2011. Not long after his death, she founded Forefront, a UW-affiliated non-profit that focuses on suicide prevention.

Stuber says Facebook brought her staff of mental health experts at Forefront on as consultants, seeking input on what resources the social media network should direct people to and how the process should work.

The conversations also included important input from suicide attempt survivors.

Here's what they came up with:

When someone sees a post that suggests the author might be considering suicide, they can click on a dropdown menu and report the post to Facebook. The reporting activates a series of responses, including options on how to talk to that friend about suicide and ways to speak directly with a trained professional at a suicide helpline. People can also anonymously report a concerning post.

"It's horrifying to think of someone you know in a place of crisis like that," said Stephen Paul Miller. "It's completely terrifying."

He experienced that terrifying feeling firsthand five years ago. That's when Miller saw a concerning Facebook post, written by a college classmate. It read, "It's too much, I can't take it."

"I remember getting a sinking feeling in my stomach and remember thinking, 'That's really not right,'" he said. "But I didn't do anything. I thought to myself, 'I'm going to call him tomorrow because this feels a little off.'"

He never got that chance. His friend died by suicide that evening.

Miller wishes he would've had access to the Facebook suicide prevention feature back then.

"Because I just didn't know what to do, plain and simple. I didn't know what to do or where to turn," said Miller. "So to think about this tool as a way to save lives and other communities and families from this loss, excites me very much."

That's also why Miller joined the Forefront team when he graduated from college. He now works as the organization's operations manager, working on suicide prevention every day.

Stuber, meanwhile, was in California on Wednesday, as Facebook announced its new suicide prevention efforts at company headquarters.

She says it's about being pro-active and providing people with the resources they need to get help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there is help available 24 hours a day at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. That number is 1-800-273-8255. You can also find a list of warning signs here.


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