The term social media refers to the various Internet and mobile communications tools (such as texting, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace and others) that may be used to communicate information extremely rapidly, often to large numbers of people. In the emotionally charged atmosphere that can follow a suicide death, schools may be inclined to try to control or stifle such communications by students—a task that is virtually impossible in any event, since they generally take place outside of school hours and property. Schools can, however, utilize social media effectively to disseminate information and promote suicide prevention efforts.
Following a suicide death, students may immediately turn to social media for a variety of purposes, including transmitting news about the death (both accurate and rumored), calling for impromptu gatherings (both safe and unsafe), creating online memorials (both moving and risky), and posting messages (both appropriate and hostile) about the deceased.
Although schools may initially consider social media to be outside of its traditional jurisdiction, they can in fact collaborate with students and utilize these tools to disseminate important
and accurate information to the school community, identify students who may be in need of additional support or further intervention, share resources for grief support and mental health care, and promote safe messages that emphasize suicide prevention and minimize the risk of suicide contagion.
It can be very beneficial for a designated member of the Crisis Response Team (ideally someone from the school’s information technology department) to reach out to friends of the deceased and other key students to work collaboratively in this area. Working in partnership with student leaders will enhance the credibility and effectiveness of social media efforts, since the students themselves are in the best position to help identify the particular media favored by the student body, engage their peers in honoring their friend’s life appropriately and safely, and inform school staff about online communications that may be worrisome.
Students who are recruited to help should be reassured that school staff are only interested in supporting a healthy response to their peer’s death, not in thwarting communication. They should also be made aware that staff are available and prepared to intervene if any communications reveal cause for concern.
Schools may already have a website and/or an online presence (or page) on one or more social media sites; students can help identify others that are currently popular. These can be used to proactively communicate with students, teachers, and parents about:
- the funeral or memorial service (schools should of course check with the student’s family before sharing information about the funeral)
- where students can go for help or meet with counselors
- mental illness and the causes of suicide
- local mental health resources
- the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number: 800-273-TALK (8255)
- national suicide prevention organizations such as the National Suicide Prevention LifelineSchools should emphasize help-seeking and suicide prevention. More specific guidance for safe message content may be found at http://www.sprc.org/library/SafeMessagingfinal.pdf. Students can also be enlisted to post this information on their own online pages.
Online Memorial Pages
Online memorial pages and message boards have become common practice in the aftermath of a death.
Some schools (with the permission and support of the deceased student’s family) may choose
to establish a memorial page on the school website or on a social networking site. As with all memorialization following a suicide death, such pages should take care not to glamorize the death in ways that may lead other at-risk students to identify with the person who died. It is therefore vital that memorial pages utilize safe messaging, include resources, be monitored by an adult, and be time-limited.
It is recommended that online memorial pages remain active for up to 30 to 60 days after the death, at which time they should be taken down and replaced with a statement acknowledging the caring and supportive messages that had been posted and encouraging students who wish to further honor their friend to consider other creative suggestions.
If the student’s friends create a memorial page of their own, it is important that school personnel communicate with the students to ensure that the page includes safe messaging and accurate information. School personnel should also join any student-initiated memorial pages so that they can monitor and respond as appropriate.
Monitor and Respond
To the extent possible, social media sites (including the deceased’s wall or personal profile pages) should be monitored for:
• information about upcoming or impromptu gatherings
• derogatory messages about the deceased
• messages that bully or victimize current students
• comments indicating students who may themselves be at risk
Responses may include posting comments that dispel rumors, reinforce the connection between mental illness and suicide, and offer resources for mental health care. In some cases, the appropriate response may go beyond simply posting a comment, safe message, or resource information. It may extend to notifying parents and local law enforcement about the need for security at a late-night student gathering, for example.
In some cases it may be necessary to take action against so-called trolls who may seek out memorial pages on social media sites and post deliberately offensive messages and pictures. Most sites have a report mechanism or comparable feature, which enables users to notify the site of the offensive material and request that it be removed. The administrator of the memorial page may also be able to block particular individuals from accessing the site. Because the available options vary from site to site and can evolve over time, schools are advised to contact the particular site for instructions.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has developed an in-depth online postvention manual that details how to find various social media sites and other online groups, post resources, and reach out to parents.
On occasion, schools may become aware of posted messages indicating that another student may be at risk of suicide. Messages of greatest concern may suggest hopelessness or refer to plans to join the deceased student. In those instances, it may be necessary to alert the student’s family and/or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to request that a crisis center follow up with the student.