mental health

Feb 27, 2013

Social media, suicide prevention and young people: Time for collaborative action

Today in Melbourne representatives from leading youth, mental health, research, media and technology providers are coming together to discuss the risks, challenges and opportunities pr

Today in Melbourne representatives from leading youth, mental health, research, media and technology providers are coming together to discuss the risks, challenges and opportunities provided by social media. The focus will be suicide prevention and young people and discussion will be informed by background research into the use of social media and insightful feedback provided by young people through a series of consultations.

Many thanks to Jaelea Skehan, A/Director, Hunter Institute of Mental Health and Jane Burns, CEO, Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre for providing the following insight into today’s roundtable:

Nobody would argue that we need to find ways of increasing community discussion about suicide, mental health and help-seeking and its role in suicide prevention – in families, amongst friends, in health services, in workplaces, and in the community more broadly.  We do know, however, that different considerations apply depending on the type of discussion, the setting it occurs in and who is having the conversation.

It is clear that the world in which we live has forever changed.  Services that work directly with young people tell us that technology (including social media) is no longer just important to young people but a core and fundamental part of who they are and how they connect.  So any consideration for how we engage young people in suicide prevention must consider how this can be done effectively and safely in the online environment.

One of the challenges we have in terms of understanding suicide prevention is that the research is having trouble keeping up with the technology. While there is a definite need for rigorous research, waiting for enough research and the right type of research to be funded, completed and released before even considering ‘doing something’ is too risky a proposition. It is critical that we fast-track our research to ensure it keeps pace with community need and that our research moves beyond just more ‘evidence’ to the practical application and translation of that evidence for services on the ground (both online and offline).

In the absence of any empirical evidence in this area, it is still possible to identify some of the potential dangers as well as some of the opportunities that social media may offer us as a sector and a community. There is a need to act immediately to develop principles to guide our policy, clinical and community decisions about how to manage online communications, not only for young people but also for the services, families and social networks that support them.  A core and fundamental consideration is how to do this safely, ethically and with the interests of young people and services in mind.

Today (Wednesday, 27 February), more than 50 representatives from Australia’s leading youth, mental health, research, media and technology providers will come together in Melbourne to participate in a roundtable to develop a collaborative approach to tackle the risks, challenges and opportunities presented by social media. This first roundtable will focus specifically on social media, suicide prevention and young people and attempt to find collaborative ways forward and immediate action.

The five-hour roundtable, hosted by the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre and the Mindframe National Media Initiative (which is managed by the Hunter Institute of Mental Health) will be facilitated by National Mental Health Commissioner Sam Mostyn.

This will not be an exercise in ‘technology bashing’ but rather a solution-focussed discussion to identify both the benefits and risks of engaging with young people through social media and the role that the mental health sector, technology partners, the media, researchers, other stakeholders and young people themselves can play. It is the start of a process to define and agree on a collaborative approach to minimise the risks and enhance the benefits that social media may provide to young people in distress.

Social media has become a powerful tool for young people to connect and engage with each other, but at the same time we know it presents an ongoing challenge for services, mental health providers and young people themselves when managing its risks – and particularly those who are most at-risk. We have a unique opportunity through the roundtable to really identify and tackle these issues.

This issue is one that countries all over the world are grappling with. In many ways, Australia may be best placed to lead collaborative action. We have arguably the most sophisticated media when it comes to the reporting of suicide, we have a dedicated youth mental health sector, we have a national suicide prevention strategy, we have suicidologists and e-mental health research experts with international reputation, we have an ongoing commitment to understanding the role of technology as a new and evolving platform for service delivery and we have a strong consumer, carer and youth empowerment movement.

A report of key outcomes and ways forward will be developed following the roundtable.  To inform discussions, a range of other analyses and consultations were conducted in 2012. These have been released to coincide with the roundtable and are summarised below.

Who is in the social media zoo? 

For more than 10 years, the Hunter Institute of Mental Health has been funded to translate the research evidence around media reporting and portrayal of mental illness and suicide and to work with the media and other sectors to encourage responsible, accurate and sensitive media representation of mental illness and suicide.

This work, conducted under the Mindframe National Media Initiative, has led to the development and dissemination of resources and professional development for the news and entertainment media as well as advice for sectors that work with the media, such as the mental health and suicide prevention sector, police and courts.

All of these sector resources were, however, developed before the rise and influence of social media. Considerations for communicating with communities through social media channels have not formed part of the recommendations.

Social media has become the most popular activity for Australians online and many media outlets have entered the space to engage with and influence consumers. Media outlets and journalists have typically had a fast uptake of social media, and the mental health sector has also become an increasing influence in the social media space.

Common sense (given the general lack of research evidence) would suggest that the Mindframe principles, while informative, will not directly apply to the social media landscape. In fact, consultations with journalists conducted in 2012 highlighted the lack of specific advice relating to social media under Mindframe as a key concern.

To better explore the nature and type of social media used by the traditional media and the mental health sector, the Institute contracted Dialogue Consulting to complete two scoping studies in 2012.  These analyses provided a snapshot of the extent and nature of social media use of each sector and some duty of care considerations to inform future engagement.

An analysis of 478 social media presences of Australian media organisations and journalists was conducted. It found that:

  • Most major outlets had at least one social media channel. Twitter is the social network of choice for mainstream news outlets and professional journalists, with 88 per cent of the professional presences on Twitter.
  • Media outlets were the most influential in terms of the number of followers. However, they had less engagement (and thus potentially less risk) than journalists.
  • Facebook presences were mostly media outlets that syndicated material via RSS feeds or similar. They had a low level of engagement compared to Twitter engagement and did not engage meaningfully with users.

A separate analysis also examined the social media presences of 120 mental health organisations or key stakeholders (with a total of 203 accounts). It was found that:

  • Seventy per cent of mental health organisations have a Twitter account and 60 per cent have a Facebook presence.
  • Fifteen ‘big players’ had more than 3,000 Twitter followers. Considering the average Twitter user has 27 followers (compared to an average of 130 Facebook friends), the median of 1,162 indicates that there is significant interest in the mental health sector on Twitter.
  • Nineteen of the 91 Facebook presences identified were automatically generated pages populated with content from Wikipedia.

In relation to the mental health and suicide prevention sector engaging with communities through social media, a number of potential risks were identified for consideration and relevant to the roundtable discussion.

  • While content posted by organisations was generally appropriate, the main risks appeared to come from user-generated content posted to social media channels, including graphic discussions about suicide and spam content.
  • Given that organisations are now responsible for the user-generated content that is posted on their Pages, as a result of a recent ruling by the ASB (Advertising Standards Bureau) and ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission), the organisation has a responsibility to remove offending content.
  • The impact that social media has on duty of care is yet to be measured.  Until further legal guidance is provided, organisations can only adhere to best practice principles.
  • Anecdotal research has found that organisations are concerned about hours of operation regarding moderating social media sites,  as a user may post content outside moderation hours that requires an immediate response (such as suicidal content).

The social media profile analyses conducted by Dialogue Consulting can be downloaded from the Mindframe website. 

Young people shine a light on potential solutions

The most important voice when talking about young people and suicide prevention is that of young people themselves. In late 2012, the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre partnered with the Inspire Foundation, MindMatters and the Inspire Foundation’s Community Forums to run simultaneous face-to-face and online focus groups with young people.

The young people consulted, pointed the issues out simply:

Young people experiencing suicidal thoughts use social media to ask for help, to express themselves, and to find support and acceptance for what they are feeling and thinking.

 The internet is a big place used for many different purposes. The larger platforms are used by a lot of people but we shouldn’t forget the smaller sites that young people also engage with every day. Suicidal posts can occur wherever young people are communicating online.

In a shining example of solution-focussed discussions, young people suggested the following things that the broad mental health sector needs to consider in its engagement with young people online:

  • Provide better support for young people who view and/or respond to posts from suicidal young people in their network;
  • Recognise that social media channels are used differently and therefore require different interventions;
  • Understand that it is impossible to filter out all negative content but, with the right tools, young people can play a positive role in regulating their social media environments;
  • Consider engaging in a way that does not force information or support on people, but is rather provided as a choice for people to make;
  • Recognise that all young people in distress need help and support, whether they have suicidal intent or are simply reaching out for help;
  • Provide better support for young people who are responding to calls for help from their friends – they know them better than anyone; and
  • Consider young people’s desire for technology companies to be genuine, clear and upfront about how, when and where they can help.

The following ideas for using the technology were also posed by the young people consulted:

  • Give us more options, don’t just block information;
  • More pop-up ads on Google and other sites;
  • Target ‘at risk’ groups on Facebook with mental health information and services being presented in their news feed;
  • A pop-up Facebook chat or notification with links to support services if code words are detected in a post;
  • A report button for a suicidal post. Separate to the abuse or spam post, this would trigger a notification to pop up;
  • Staged escalation response. First a pop-up, then a Facebook counsellor, and then notification of emergency services; and
  • Help create culture change – use the passion, energy and obsession with Facebook that so many young people have and turn this into an awareness campaign on how to respond to someone who is having a hard time, or how to ask for help.

More information on the consultation with young people can be found on the Young and Well CRC website.


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