This support group has thousands of members. Because it’s so large, the group doesn’t have a set day, time or place to meet. Instead, members are always connected to each other and communicate when they need help the most. And, unlike in most support groups, they get to stay largely anonymous.
The group is called Suicide Fighters Support Group, and, with more than 12,600 members, it’s one of Facebook’s largest communities dedicated to suicide support. Its members are people who have contemplated suicide and those who have been affected by a suicide death.
“Social media often gets a bad reputation for causing some of society’s ills, such as fake news, cyberbullying and self-esteem issues,” said Andrew Selepak, director of the graduate program in social media at the University of Florida. “But social media can also be the world’s largest support network.”
A suicide attempt survivor and mental health advocate, Shane Schulz said he “(knows) first hand the value of social media for support, connection and to focus on improving” your mental health.
“By entering key terms in the search engines of social media sites that align with their struggles, people can connect with groups of people just like them and related online communities where they can feel understood,” he said. “I participated in a worldwide movement last month, called #LetsChalkAboutMentalHealth, that brought awareness to mental health and suicide prevention.
“Finding movements like this to join surrounds (the person who’s struggling) with compassionate and caring people that not only understand and identify with the challenges, but also are willing to help someone feel seen, heard, understood and not feel alone.”
With the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, it can be difficult to talk to people you love when you’re struggling. If it’s used correctly, social media can provide a safe outlet for difficult feelings, by way of private and public groups and hashtags.
“Sometimes when people are considering suicide, they don’t want to reach out to loved ones because they don’t want to involve someone who is emotionally connected to the situation,” said Rhode Island-based psychotherapist Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher. “They want to avoid loved ones freaking out, making it about themselves— ‘How could you do that to me?’—or dismissing them— ‘You’re not serious, you’re just sad.’
“Connecting with someone through social media, particularly if mental health symptoms have caused you to isolate, can allow an individual to feel heard and not alone or abnormal.”
For people who suppress their emotions around mental health, talking about them online can be a great first step.
“Twitter is quite prominent here because it is convenient to use hashtags such as #SickNotWeak, where people can find support and other people who are struggling with similar problems,” said Vladimir Musicki, a psychotherapist and psychologist in Serbia. “Stigma and self-stigma are the main barriers to recovery, so going out, even in a virtual world of the internet, and sharing your story might be a good anti-stigmatizing cure.”
There is a lot of stuff on the internet that can trigger mental illness. Comparing yourself to others online and receiving a constant stream of political news causes stress. Cyberbullying has been linked to suicide and self-harm, especially in young people. High-profile cases of suicide urged on by internet “friends” hasn’t helped social media’s case as a positive force.
However, being mindful of the time you spend on social media, including “(getting) off of social sites that cause triggers, especially if (you) have been bullied on one of those sites,” can help you preserve your mental health when you’re online, said Tamika Grimes, a Georgia-based counselor who works with high schoolers.
“Many of my teenagers who have experienced suicidal ideation or have engaged in self harm have shared with me how being in online support groups as well as watching YouTube videos have helped them get through very tough times,” Grimes said. “Social media can be used negatively if the person is seeking out harmful material or being bullied; however, I have found certain sites to be very helpful for my clients.”
One of those is Project Semicolon’s YouTube channel, she said.
Though there’s help to be found online, it’s best to pair it with treatment by a mental health professional, said Bryan Bruno, medical director at New York-based depression treatment center Mid City TMS.
And if you see a friend in distress on social media, reach out to them.
“I have seen posts on social media and messaged a friend to check on them, or called someone I cared about to see how they are doing,” Selepak said. “I have even noticed when people in my life have gone inactive on social media, and I will send them a message to see how they are doing. …
“Sometimes all it might take is for someone to reach out and show they care to bring us back from the brink. Thankfully social media can remind us when we need to do this, and makes it easier for us to connect with someone who would otherwise feel alone.”
This is part of a series of stories to bring awareness to the issue of suicide, in honor of National Suicide Prevention Month. If you or someone you know needs support, contact the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.