Sharon Wood is president and CEO of Kids Help Phone, Canada's only national youth crisis line. Kevin Chan is head of public policy for Facebook Canada.
A report released this week by Kids Help Phone – Teens Talk 2016 – found that one-in-five teens has seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months.
One in five.
When we look at this worrying statistic, our first priority must be to take action and work out how we can help teens experiencing suicidal thoughts before they begin to plan, or even attempt, suicide. And do it quickly.
And the most effective way we can do this is by listening to teens on their terms.
Right now, we're just not very good at listening to teens where they're often most active – their digital and social worlds.
Today's teens have blurred the lines between their digital and physical experience – to teens, both worlds are completely entwined and complementary. Online, just like offline, teens share their personal experiences and seek information with each other and those around them. But what they choose to share online and offline differs greatly.
Teens are reaching out about serious issues, but they may not be talking to mom or dad, a friend or a relative. Instead, they're searching the web, posting on social media, exploring forums and blogs and reaching out for help online. When people connect online, there is safety in numbers – and we need to look out for one another by making it easier to find support, help and intervention.
Kids Help Phone's counselling statistics and Teens Talk 2016 strongly support this. Teens are almost twice as likely to reach out to Kids Help Phone's service about suicide or a suicide-related topic through our online chat counselling service (12 per cent of chat sessions) than they are through our phone counselling service (6.8 per cent of phone sessions). Topics such as suicidality, mental-health concerns, sexuality and sexual health dominate Kids Help Phone's most visited website pages. Additionally, Teens Talk 2016 found that more than half of teens who seriously consider attempting suicide have searched the web or social media about suicide. Perhaps more striking, the survey found that half of the teens who had considered suicide had not spoken to anyone about it, re-enforcing the need to meet kids where they're at online.
Effective suicide-prevention strategies stress early intervention, building social support networks, nurturing coping skills and, linking young people to organizations that can help.
Just as we watch and listen for the warning signs of suicide when we're physically with the young people in our lives – anxiety, withdrawal, hopelessness or mood change – we need to work as a society to meet teens where they live digitally and get better at observing and acting on these same signs online.
The best actions we can take to help teens who express their distress online are the same as those we would employ in person – identify the risk, create a safe space, make sure they're not alone and help them connect to a professional service.
A good example of a solution that bridges the online and offline worlds is the expansion of Facebook's suicide-prevention tools that launched in June of this year. Following the lead of several mental-health organizations, including Kids Help Phone, Facebook has made it easier for concerned friends to report worrisome content.
When content is reported, Facebook's team of trained experts will provide critical resources that could save a life, including the phone number for their local helpline. In addition, Facebook now provides friends and family members with suggested language and other tips that can help them support a loved one during this crucial time.
As a society, we need to find better ways to bridge the gap between teens' online and offline worlds in a fast, respectful and effective way. On their terms and on their turf.
It's a matter of life and death.