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Many have come to see social media websites as a warning system that can be used to prevent suicide attempts. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Many have come to see social media websites as a warning system that can be used to prevent suicide attempts. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Working to find and save suicidal people online Add to ...

As the young man’s dorm room darkened with smoke, the tones of the online comments changed from mockery to concern.

Many thought the suicide note he’d posted moments earlier was a hoax. But now they could see the small fire in the corner of his room and an outline of his motionless body.

“This man needs help,” wrote one commenter on the 4chan.org chat room, where 200 people were watching what looked to be the young man’s final moments Nov. 30. “Any way to find him?”

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That’s where this online community ran up against a phenomenon emergency responders around the world have been facing for some time.

Even as Canada’s suicide rate has trended downward since the Internet became commonplace around 1995, the number of suicide attempts announced through social media is climbing.

That leaves emergency personnel scrambling for a way to sort and trace the dozens of anonymous suicidal messages that crop up on Twitter, Facebook and other social-media websites every week.

And while some point to these sites as the root of the problem, many influential voices in the field have come to see them as a kind of early warning system that should be used to track and prevent suicide attempts.

“Over all, it could be a positive development,” said Sandra Kiume-Dawson, a mental-health advocate who offers support and counsel through her @unsuicide Twitter account. “People could get the support they need when they express suicidal thoughts through Twitter. Right now, people are reaching out for help online and they’re not getting it from agencies.”

It was an analog rescue in the case of the dorm-room fire. Those in the 4chan chat room couldn’t come up with a name or location for the suicidal student, even though he’d been a long-time user of the site. Firefighters eventually rescued the 20-year-old University of Guelph student, but only after fellow residents spotted smoke billowing from beneath his door. It took a full day before anyone connected the Dundas Hall residence incident to the online video.

A high-tech solution may not be far off. Brigham Young researchers have developed an algorithm that monitors millions of tweets for keywords and phrases associated with suicide and bullying. During a three-month test run, they identified nearly 38,000 troubling tweets from 28,000 at-risk users. More promising, their numbers paralleled suicide rates in most states, suggesting Twitter is a decent predictor of self-harm in the U.S. The researchers hope to build an app that would notify counsellors, parents or emergency personnel when the algorithm identifies a cry for help.

The question still remains: How should emergency officials respond to these very public declarations? In one case last summer, the Calgary Police reacted to a suicidal tweet from a 17-year-old Calgary teen with an equally public response through its central Twitter account: “please call 9-1-1 as we are concerned for your safety.”

She was fine in the end, despite consuming toxic amounts of Silent Sam vodka, but more due to the sleuth work of her friends online, not the police tweet that drew much attention to her plight.

“You could tell nobody really knew what to do,” said the 17-year-old, who was eventually found by police and taken to hospital. “I probably needed someone to talk to, not police and hospitals.”

That’s where Anne Marie Batten comes in. A Toronto-based street nurse, Ms. Batten is in the middle of launching what would be the country’s first online crisis intervention centre with Toronto Police Constable Scott Mills. The non-profit corporation, called Real Time Crisis, would staff mental-health professionals and work with police departments and Internet companies around the world. The idea is to reach out and counsel anyone experiencing a mental-health crisis online. If they’re deemed in need of urgent care, the Real Time Crisis workers will pass on the case to the appropriate police intelligence bureau to track down IP addresses and launch a rescue attempt.

“Often people online will recognize there’s a need for police or medical intervention online so they will call 9-1-1 and there’s often someone on the other end who doesn’t know what to do,” said Constable Mills, a social media relations officer. “We are getting these often, so the idea is to put a process in place.”

Though the organization’s launch still awaits donor dollars, Constable Mills and Ms. Batten area already dealing with a heavy caseload.

In one recent case, a Twitter user launched a countdown. When she reached zero, she planned to take her life. By the time Ms. Batten jumped on Twitter to offer services as a nurse, the countdown had reached one hour. She finally engaged the distraught young woman with just 20 seconds left.

“It turned out she was in Texas,” said Ms. Batten, who’s trimmed down to part-time hours at her day job to get Real Time Crisis off the ground. “She told me what pills she had taken. I was able to get her help. And this is all before we’ve formally launched.”

They hope to get everything up and running by the spring, “We can get ahead of this stuff and prevent it from happening, that’s the whole point of this,” said Ms. Batten.

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