What to do if you witness suicide or self harm online.

For everything that is said about it, there are many ways that social media can be a positive factor in our mental health. Supportive communities like All Call Signs and others can be a source of comfort to those feeling isolated or disconnected to the world around them. Social media makes it much easier to meet people you have shared interests and experiences with, particularly if you’re experiences are unique and your interests niche. The veteran community is a perfect example: Where else but Facebook, Twitter and other social networks could you connect with so many former members of the armed forces? 

But for all the good it does, we can’t overlook the areas that need improvement. And in our mind, one of the biggest issues with social media is how poorly it is moderated. This often leaves room for hate speech, bullying, inappropriate (sometimes illegal) content and, in a worryingly growing trend, individuals choosing to self harm or end their life in front of a live audience. 

If you’ve witnessed someone doing this before, whether you know them or not, you’ll understand how harrowing it can be and how helpless it can make you feel. If we watched someone hurting themselves in front of us in almost any other setting, we would do our best to intervene. But how do you help someone who could be thousands of miles away?

In this post we hope to give you some easy to follow, actionable tips on how you can help someone who you believe to be in immediate danger of self harm or suicide if you’re connected online.

 

What does self harm and suicide online look like?

Probably the first thing that comes to mind is the really awful examples in the past where an individual has ‘live streamed’ their suicide through Facebook, Tik Tok, Twitter, Instagram or similar. In September last year, a man named Ronnie McNutt streamed footage of him taking his own life to Tik Tok and it was quickly shared across other social media platforms. The videos were often misdescribed on purpose to ensure people who may have otherwise avoided such content, watched them. How quickly and extensively the footage was shared brought wide-spread condemnation of the moderation of the platforms involved. 

But there are other more common examples: In the past three years we’ve been alerted to individuals sharing evidence of self harm and suicide attempts in the form of pictures and videos in closed groups, direct messages and through mediums like Whatsapp. In some cases there is no media involved, simply a statement that the person has self harmed or taken steps to end their life. 

If you witness someone self harming or making an attempt to end their life in any way, you must act immediately.

 

If you know the person

If you know the person you believe to be in danger then you have more options available to you. Below are some suggestions, but you must assess each situation carefully and make a judgement on which actions are most likely to prevent harm/injury. 

Ask the person to stop

It may sound so simple it’s trivial, but asking someone to stop, reminding them how much they are loved, how much they have to live for, does work in some cases. If they have children, family members or friends you can mention by name, then do so. You can do this online in response to their post, but if you have their telephone number, calling them can help too. If you can’t get hold of them, switch to the other steps below and once carried out, keep trying to get hold of them.

Physically Intervene

Are you near enough to get to the person? Could you physically intervene? If you are in the same building or on the same street you may be able to help quicker by acting yourself, as long as you feel it is safe to do so. If a person is self harming with a knife or other weapon and is in a volatile headspace, then you need to think if attending in person is putting yourself in danger. If they have taken an overdose, then attending in person may not be the quickest way to get them help and calling the emergency services might be the better first step. 

If you’re not geographically near to them, tell someone who is

You may be thousands of miles away but if you have a telephone number of someone who lives with the person or lives near enough to physically intervene, then it is worth trying to get in contact with them as soon as possible and letting them know what is going on. 

Call the emergency services

Ask for the police and ambulance services. Tell them exactly what is happening and as much information you can give about the whereabouts of the person. If you have an address, all the better, but the emergency services will likely be able to get a home address from other information such as date of birth, full name, town they live in etc. A lot of people DON’T call the emergency services because they assume someone would have done so already, particularly in cases of public posts/livestreams. Make the call. In the case of an immediate risk to loss of life, the police would rather get 10 identical calls than no calls at all. 

 

If you don’t know the person

If you don’t know the person there are still things you can do to help ensure they get help. 

Still ask them to stop

You may not have as much personal information available to you but you can still implore the individual not to hurt themselves. Remind them that whatever is happening in their life right now, things can get better. Sometimes reminding the person that young people/kids may be watching or that they are upsetting people who do not want them to hurt themselves can help change their mind. 

Still call the emergency services

You may think it is not your place to do so but it is important you act immediately. If you are viewing this person’s actions online then chances are you are a few clicks away from information that will help the emergency services locate them. Check bios, about sections and any public pictures or other information that might be useful. 

In the past we have successfully directed police and ambulance services to an individual in danger with only their name, birthday and area their regiment recruits from. The more information you can pass on the better, but every little helps. Remember, other people might be passing on information that combined with yours is enough to locate the person. 

If the person looks to be in a public area and you’re not sure where it is then take screenshots, the police may ask you to send them on in their efforts to locate the person. 

 

Act Immediately

The important thing to remember is that often with incidents of suicide and self harm, you are racing against the clock. You may not feel it is your responsibility to act. You may think someone else will surely have informed the emergency services. The reality is preventing suicide is everyone’s responsibility. If you see it, report it and act quickly.