When legendary actor and comedian Robin Williams passed away on Aug. 11, many people took to social media to express their heartfelt thoughts and messages of mourning. Some of the most touching words from celebrities, organizations and fans lit up the internet in an effort to pay their respects.
But some of the most well-meaning tweets have the potential for unintended consequences. Take, for example, this tweet from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences:
Genie, you're free. pic.twitter.com/WjA9QuuldD
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) August 12, 2014
As Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, tells the Washington Post, there's a major downside to viral social media posts like The Academy's because they have the potential to encourage others to take the same route by implying that they're "free" from their suffering.
"If it doesn't cross the line, it comes very, very close to it," she told the publication. "Suicide should never be presented as an option. That's a formula for potential contagion."
Madelyn Gould, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a suicide prevention advocate and researcher, echoes this sentiment. When it comes to a publicly-addressed suicide, she explains, the conversation needs to happen in a responsible manner in order to prevent it from becoming a model for others who are vulnerable.
The CDC has recommended guidelines when it comes to reporting and sharing thoughts about suicide and mental health for media outlets and large organizations. Among them are recommendations for health officials to provide scientific background about suicide through interviews and for reporters to have careful consideration when writing to minimize the risk of contagion (an overexposure to suicidal behaviors that may influence others to commit or attempt suicide).
According to Gould, those regulations may becoming more blurred as we move forward in the digital age -- and that's a potential problem.
"Social media has the potential to have an inadvertent impact on [people who are] vulnerable because of the speed by which things are shared," she told The Huffington Post. Because of this immediacy, she says, sometimes the words that are posted across the internet can have a negative influence on others who may be suffering from the same mental health issues.
"These stories, unfortunately with a celebrity, are going to get repeated," she said. "We know from our research and other research that the more there are such stories, the greater the likelihood that there will be some vulnerable person who ... gets the message that suicide is the only way out."
Those triggers are why Gould says reaching out for help is crucial. "With the death of someone so beloved and respected ... [posts about grief] are ubiquitous," she continued. "People can start to identify with him. They can think, 'if he couldn't overcome this, then how can the regular person do it?' ... But they can with help -- there's treatment for mental health problems."
There are ways to utilize social media for good during times of despair, Gould explains. Sometimes taking to the Twitterverse or your Facebook feed really can provide comfort during periods of grief or struggle if you're make individual connections with people. The point, she stresses, is that you're reaching out to get the help that you need.
"Suicide is preventable," she said. "Your pain is treatable and it's temporary. You can get better."
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.