Suicidal Teens Turn Away From Hotlines, Seek Solace in Social Media

The most widely used public method of preventing suicides — crisis hotlines — may not be as effective as previously thought.  New evidence suggests that teens in particular are highly unlikely to contact a hotline if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Since adolescents are at higher risk of committing suicide than many others, it’s imperative that there be an effective means of reachig out to them when they need help.

According to information from the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide ranks as the No. 3 reason for teen deaths in America. A recent PsychCentral article indicates that a more effective means of providing support to teens might be through social media and text messaging programs. Researchers at Ohio State University conducted two studies to test the idea that social media efforts might more effective than hotlines in reaching out to suicidal teens.

The first study analyzed public messages posted to MySpace. Of the teens making posts, 64 percent made statements about wanting to die. The second study looked at ways that young adults reached out to others when they were feeling depressed. The follow-up study found that teens were likely to contact a friend or member of the family first, but social media was the second most frequent way that adolescents cried out for help. Interestingly, respondents of the survey voiced that they would not reach out to suicide hotlines or virtual support groups if they needed assistance.

The results of the study suggest that current methods of suicide prevention for young adults be revisited. Attending to teens in crisis means being in the places they hang out, and that means maintaining a presence on social media. Lead study author Scottye Cash advises that social media is where young adults feel most comfortable sharing their feelings and where they openly express themselves.

A content analysis helped Cash and his team to narrow down suicidal phrases from a pool of 2 million online comments. Over 1,000 of the total responses contained verbiage suggestive of suicide, but upon manually reviewing the comments, 64 were deemed to contain overt references to suicide.

After filtering out exaggerations where teens referred to death in jest, researchers decided to analyze the repetition of three phrases. Fifty-six percent of teens expressed a desire to “kill myself,” 15.6 percent said they “want to die,” and 14.1 percent used the term “suicide.” While Cash and his team were unable to determine the reason for the dark posts in the majority of cases, 42 percent of posts referenced family or relational problems, including break-ups as the source of despair. Other contributing factors were mental health disorders and problems with substance abuse.

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 8 percent of American kids in high school admitted that they had tried to take their own life at least once during the 12 months preceding the survey. Cash pointed out that we need to find more creative ways to connect with teens so we can help them through these struggles.

There is still hope.

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