Monday November 21, 2011
Befrienders taps Internet to help the suicide-prone
By ELIZABETH TAI
In an age when suicide notes are left on social media websites, organisations like the Befrienders are using the Internet to reach out to the suicide-prone.
LAST Christmas, British charity worker Simone Back wrote on her Facebook page: “Took all my pills be dead soon so bye bye every one.” Some of her 1,082 friends reacted nonchalantly. One said she was lying and another said that it was “her choice”. Some, however, urged for someone to contact her.
The next day, her mother Jennifer Langridge, 60, was told of her daughter’s ominous messages. But it was too late – Back was already dead.
Last December, 22-year-old Alviss Kong posted a 45-minute countdown to his suicide on Facebook. Minutes after his post, 204 Facebook members “liked” his suicidal status. Kong eventually jumped off the 14th floor of his apartment building in Ketumbar Heights, Cheras, Kuala Lumpur.
A few months later in February, 17-year-old Sally Lee Qian Chun, a Form 5 student at SMK Seri Kota in Ayer Leleh, Malacca, walked out abruptly during class and sat on the corridor ledge and fell backwards. A month before, she had posted a series of disturbing messages on Facebook, and even said that she was planning her suicide. Instead of empathy and concern, some users taunted her. Some even dared her to go ahead and kill herself.
A suicidal person feels helpless, hopeless, isolated and unbearable emotional pain. Those unable to communicate personally with someone they trust tend to leave messages on Facebook or other social media, said Befrienders KL chairman S. Gangadara Vadivel.
“They fear rejection or lack of acceptance in personal communication. They test the waters by posting suicide messages, hoping that someone will recognise their crisis and offer help. Facebook also allows them to reach a larger circle of people or friends. Expressing feelings on Facebook is also a form of emotional release that helps to reduce pain,” he said.
Although not all suicidal persons who post their intentions go on to kill themselves, their messages must be taken seriously. Insensitive responses or delay in response could have tragic consequences.
“If you give the wrong response by belittling the person or trivialising the person’s feelings, they may go ahead because they feel hopeless and that nobody understands them,” said Gangadara.
However, while it is easy to demonise the commentators who left taunting messages, Gangadara said that they’re not bad people.
“They just don’t know how to react or respond to the situation,” he said.
After Kong and Lee’s suicides, many people conveyed messages to the Befrienders that they regretted what they had done.
“They didn’t think that it could’ve gone this way,” he said.
“Unsympathetic responses could be due to lack of awareness or ignorance of suicidal feelings. Or they don’t take the messages seriously. There’s also a mistaken belief that people who express suicidal intentions will not carry them out,” said Gangadara.
This is why educating the public about suicide is so important, he said. There is a great need to create awareness among the public on how to recognise suicidal thoughts and how to extend emotional support to suicidal persons in order to prevent suicides, he said.
The Befrienders conduct workshop sessions on life-coping skills, capacity-building, active listening skills and emotional support skills.
“We are reaching out to young people as the Health Ministry (our networking partner) has identified the following groups as very high risk to suicide: ages 16 to 25, senior citizens, ages 65 and above, and the plantation community,” he said.
How, then, should one react to a suicidal message posted online?
Perhaps actress Demi Moore can answer that question.
In March 2009, a woman announced her plans to commit suicide by sending a tweet to Moore. Known by her monicker Sandieguy, she wrote: “Getting a knife, a big one that is sharp. Going to cut my arm down the whole arm so it doesn’t waste time.” A few seconds later, she wrote: “gbye ... gonna kill myself now.”
Moore, who was in France with her husband Ashton Kutcher, reposted the message on her Twitter page and tweeted: “hope you are joking.”
What happened next was encouraging. Her followers (she has more than 380,000 subscribed to her Twitter updates), flooded the San Jose Police Department with calls about the suicide threat. Police later located Sandieguy and took her into custody for evaluation.
Suicidal remarks should never be ignored or allowed to pass, said Gangadara.
When you see messages such as “I’m going to die tonight” or even indirect ones such as “I don’t want to get up tomorrow morning” or “It’s the end of the road for me”, do not hesitate to act.
“We have to act fast – when they’re talking about suicide, they’re already at the end of the road. And we don’t have much time,” said Gangadara.
If possible, one should avoid responding publicly or get into open discussions as confidentiality may be breached.
Instead, contact them privately and talk to them sensitively with care and concern. Enquire what they mean and if they are in trouble. Assure them of confidentiality.
“Do not judge or trivialise their feelings. Accept them. Ask them to share their problems and their painful emotions. ‘Pain shared is pain halved’. Convey to them that you are ‘with them’ in the time of crisis,” he said.
“Avoid giving them advice. Explore options with them. Empower then to find ways to cope with their crisis. Be with them as they search for meaning, solutions or ways to cope,” he added.
Even if you don’t know how to help these people, you can convey your concern so that they feel less isolated; and give them a help-line number so that they can get help for their problems. Many who attempted suicide gave feedback that they did not know where to seek help, Gangadara said.
“The simple act of informing the suicidal person of helpline services helps to reduce helplessness, hopelessness and isolation. The suicidal person feels that there are people who care,” he said.
With the presence of suicide forums where people discuss suicide methods, cyber-bullies who wage a campaign of online harassment and its ability to popularise suicides and thus prompt copy-cat suicides, the Internet may seem like an enemy to suicide prevention efforts.
However, it has also proved to be very useful for organisations like the Befrienders. For one, it has given them a method to connect and share information with organisations around the world quickly and cheaply.
In 2003, Befrienders International went into voluntary liquidation – it ceased to operate as an organisation – because its main funding source collapsed. Since then, Samaritans UK have picked up the facilitating role. For the last few years, they have been supplied a member of the staff to keep the network going and get everyone connected.
Two years ago, the network of suicide prevention organisations had a conference in Pattaya, Thailand, where they agreed to keep Befrienders going.
“Befrienders will become an independent charity from April 2012, a network called Befrienders Worldwide,” said Befrienders Worldwide chairman Elizabeth Try.
This time, instead of having a building, Befrienders Worldwide will be using the Internet actively to support one another via an interactive website that will connect all the Befrienders centres around the globe.
“It will give every single volunteer access into sharing with fellow volunteers across the world,” she said.
Said Gangadara: “It will allow the sharing of ideas and experiences, updates on trends, encourage outreach, facilitate training of volunteers, ensure quality of skills and in matters relating to international and regional leadership. It will encourage a borderless emotional support service. Teleconferencing will be included in this effort,” he said.
Not only has the Internet helped connect them with people and networks quickly, it has even saved lives.
Befrienders has received, on their e-mail and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/BefriendersKL), several suicide notes as well as messages from people alerting them of friends who are suicidal. Some have even posted suicidal messages on the page. (These posts are quickly removed to discourage open discussions.) All these people were later contacted privately, said Gangadara.
In 2008, CVV, the Befrienders centres in Brazil, began exploring other methods of communication besides telephone to reach out to young people. They began a service where volunteers can counsel people via Internet chat.
“This has proved to be an extremely successful project ... volunteers are highly trained and are supported by a leader on call at all times,” said Try when she visited the Befrienders KL centre last month.
Volunteers can operate from home, which is something that Befrienders had discouraged in the past.
“It is a different way of working. It is responding to certain people’s needs. I think this is what we’re supposed to be doing more of – actually responding to people who need us and learning how to speak their language,” she said.
Gangadara said Befrienders Malaysia will not have Internet chat services yet.
“Culturally, Asian communities do not readily accept expressing themselves using certain technology. There is also less stigma,” he said.
He believes that a careful study is needed before attempting such services. Then, there’s also the very real problem of shortage of trained volunteers.
“Our helpline and e-mail befriending services can be considered a breakthrough in our culturally conservative community. We have to move on cautiously,” he said.
Shortage of volunteers