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What should be done about posts that threaten suicide on our forums (assuming these are real threats and not an attempt to troll)?

Does anything need to be reported or done and would saying anything to the member who is posting or community as a whole make the situation worse?

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Suicide threats are a hard subject to deal with. In general, there is unlikely to be any real legal action against you if you fail to report it, simply because you can make the case that you didn't know who it was or how to get in touch with the appropriate people. That said, morally, it is probably best to take it seriously and attempt to report it to local authorities and/or refer them to a suicide prevention group.

Even if it appears that they may be joking, it can be hard to tell as suicidal individuals tend to be seeking attention and can come off very similar to trolls. The standard practice, even for trained prevention counselors, is to refer them to a medical professional and in some cases (the later described stage 3, or sometimes even stage 2) immediately to law enforcement as well. It may be a joke, but unless you are a psychologist talking to them directly, you really aren't in a position to make that judgement call. It simply isn't worth risking someone's life on your assumption.

There are multiple stages of suicidalness. It starts with someone who is thinking about killing themselves, but has not yet decided on a way to kill themselves. These people are generally desperate for attention/approval or a way out of their pain. The next stage is when they have reached the point where they have decided on how they would commit suicide but have not yet decided to go through with it. These people are far further along than stage one and have started taking the idea of killing themselves very seriously, but are still trying to see that someone cares about them. Stage three is when the individual is actively ready to commit suicide imminently. If these people are making a threat at all, it is a last desperate plea for help before they end it and it is critical that action be taken as quickly as possible.

In general, it is best to be as supportive as you can be. Reinforce that you value them in the community and don't want to see them get hurt while trying to refer them to a suicide prevention specialist. You can also be working on trying to contact local law enforcement where their IP is, particularly if they are in stage 3. Particularly for stage 3, try to keep them engaged until you can hand them off to someone qualified to deal with the situation.

Possibly join a suicide prevention chat room or site yourself and explain the situation to them so they can help coach you through it and facilitate getting the individual handed off to them (they will also be better equipped to handle law enforcement notification if you can provide them with IP address or e-mail or other relevant details.)

This post is really just a very basic crash course in a much more complicated field that involves quite a bit of training to do well, so getting help to deal with it is critical. If it is stage 1 or 2, it isn't as critical as there is generally time before they would do anything, but it's still probably a good idea to talk to a suicide prevention counselor for assistance.

(Full disclosure: I was a trained peer support counselor in high school and have training on dealing with suicidal individuals and getting them handed off to appropriate authorities and medical personnel. This post is an attempt to summarize some of the most critical bits for someone untrained to go through, but it is by no means exhaustive and I do not have any particular experience in online mediation. (I was phone based in High School.))

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    This is a rather good answer. The part about joining a suicide prevention chat room is actually very good advice. Even if you just lurk, you'll learn a thing or two about how to deal with suicidal people and any trolls who attack them. Feel free to ask the other users questions, too. I recommend #suicidewatch on irc.freenode.net - sometimes it can be rather silent, but we try to have someone around at all times. – JMcAfreak Jul 31 '14 at 6:23
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NOTE: This answer is rather pragmatic, and it's based on how I would want to be dealt with (I have been known to have suicidal tendencies in the past). A lot of it is also based on my own experience. Suicide is a very sensitive subject, and it is very personal to me. Having support from a community is great, but we often see it as artificial. When we're suicidal or depressed, many of us will feel like any kindness shown to us by anyone but those whom we trust is just a gesture of pity. Sometimes, unless we ask for help, it's best to take a pragmatic approach with us. However, I know this is not the case with all suicidal people, so use your best judgment when dealing with such cases.

I just posed the question to the moderators of #suicidewatch, an irc channel that deals specifically with suicidal people, and here's the response I got:

<@Redacted> Depends

<@Redacted> If the member is posing a general threat to themselves

<@Redacted> Pass their IP along to local law enforcement

Now, it's not always feasible to do it that way, of course. In general, there are a few steps that should to be taken. First, keep in mind that any post threatening suicide needs to be taken seriously. You can't risk brushing it off as a troll. It's also important to be supportive of the member of the community. If they ask you why their post was removed, tell them. Advise them to seek help. Throughout the entire process, especially at the beginning, be very mindful of the situation. Someone who is suicidal may become more depressed if they feel like nobody is listening. They may become more depressed if they feel like nobody understands.

  1. Remove the post threatening suicide. It may trigger others' emotions, or worse, trolls may start to feed on that person.
  2. If the forum stores the user's email address, give that email address to a suicide prevention group or hotline (some suicide hotlines will contact via email if necessary). If needs be, include a copy of the post. Usually, the user will receive an email from the group rather quickly.
  3. If the user continues to post these threats, you may need to revoke their posting privileges, at least for a while. Give the IP address to local authorities (local to the IP address) and explain the situation. They can take it from there if needed.
  4. Continue to reinforce that the user is valuable, but make it clear that posts threatening suicide are not acceptable and may result in a ban if continued.
  5. AS A LAST RESORT, you may have to ban the offending user, but only under extenuating circumstances. There's not much more you can do beyond what you've already done. Please don't do this unless it's become a major problem.

If the user decides to come back and post again, welcome them back. It's great that they're alive. But don't bring it up. A lot of us absolutely hate it when you bring it up. It makes us feel more pathetic. Just leave it at "I hope you are feeling better."

Based on my experiences (having been suicidal and having helped in #suicidewatch for at least a couple years now), most suicide threats are made because the person wants to be talked out of it. Those who want to die just do it. It's a sad truth. Talking a user out of it within the forums (the threads) isn't always the best course of action because not everybody is equipped to handle such a situation - all it takes is for another community member to say one wrong thing. This is why it's important to send their information to a suicide prevention group and/or local law enforcement.

Other than that, there's not much you can do.

If you need further guidance in dealing with suicidal users, I'd recommend looking up the Reddit boards r/SuicideWatch and r/SWResources. r/SuicideWatch is more for those looking for help (i.e. they are considering suicide and need support), and it might actually be a good place for you to recommend to a user. r/SWResources is a good place to go if you want to know how to help someone out. There are only a few actual threads on that board, but they're quite thorough (they're more guides than they are threads). I would recommend reading through all of it--including the posts about being suicidal--for a good idea of what happens and what should be done by the suicidal person and others around him/her. When looking for a suicide prevention group, Google is your friend. If you find one that works, consider making that the one you go to when a user on your boards becomes suicidal, but always be aware of other groups just in case. It is also a good idea to list these resources for your mods/admins and make sure they know about them. This can help ensure that the right thing is done when the situation arises.

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    Would banning the person not make him/her even more desperate and depressed ...? – just_curious Jan 2 '15 at 17:52
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    @just_curious It might, but when you're all out of options and they're still making threats of suicide and generally bringing the rest of your community down, it's time to let them go for two reasons. The first is that you are responsible for keeping your community positive, and you've already directed the user to other sources for help. The second is that by banning the user, you're preventing other users from possibly antagonizing the suicidal user and making things even worse. – JMcAfreak Jan 5 '15 at 22:58
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I'd like to say a few things.

  1. This is an incredibly useful discussion on a topic of real concern for those of us running online forums.

  2. While this is great, it is not definitive. Does anyone know of a "Guide for Moderators of Online Forums of Best Practices for Handling Potentially Suicidal Posts"?

Does Facebook or any of the other big players (Twitter? Google? Tumbler?) have a definitive guide? Shouldn't they? Wouldn't this be a good project for some service advocacy group such as afsp.org to put together?


I'm updating my own post with one useful resource that I've found. There is a site called NetFamilyNews which deals with a range of online issues. I put "suicide" into the search box there and found all sorts of useful info.

http://www.netfamilynews.org/?s=suicide

For those of you who are wondering, I run some educational K12 webservices some of which include forums for adults and some for teenagers. I'm trying to do some pro-active training of our moderators and supervisors (our sites are heavily moderated) and also, monitoring a situation. This is not our first since we've been at this for a decade. One of the lessons that I'm learning from this is the significance of peer response. While our sites are moderated, we can't monitor all the private communications when they choose to go outside our systems.

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    Given that there isn't such a guide for offline communities, I highly doubt there is such a guide for online ones. Suicide prevention is a complex topic that doesn't really lend itself well to a one stop best practice list. Effective suicide prevention is more about putting yourself in their shoes, showing you care, helping them to discover the root of their concerns and addressing where they are believing lies. It isn't one stop fits all and there isn't any one way to get the best outcome. There are some basic guidelines that are pretty common, but I'm not aware of any best practice. – AJ Henderson Nov 6 '14 at 14:48
  • Tumblr staff typically keeps a close eye on the #suicide tag, as well as some of the other tags such as #depression, #SelfHarm, etc. If someone is threatening suicide, the post is removed the post and the user's info (including email address) is given to the proper authorities, usually a suicide prevention group. Because Tumblr's so huge, that's about all they can do. In smaller communities, it's much easier to lay out a guide and resources for the mods and admins, and more personal attention can be given. – JMcAfreak Nov 8 '14 at 0:50
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The problem with such post is that:

  1. They could be a joke/prank
  2. They could be real

So, you never know exactly what you are dealing with. But there's basic recommendations such as: prevent public view of the post, trying to contact someone that might know the user (this is important to be able to determine if it's a prank, and if it's not, at least you contacted someone that might be able to help them), do not allow others users nor yourself to engage the user (in the form of harassment, principally).

Obviously, those cases are to be taken of with extreme precaution but you might have to accept the fact that sometimes there's nothing you can do.

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This answer is similar to the one posted by @JMcAfreak posted above, as it is also from the point of view of someone with suicidal tendencies; that also explains why this is posted under a throwaway account.

Many answers above suggest contacting law enforcement, and in my opinion this is a very bad idea.

I don't know how different countries handle this, but in my country (France) this means police come knocking at your door the next day. I don't know what happens next, I've heard that they may fine you for posting fake suicide threats, which is totally unacceptable (where is the fake/real boundary ? If the person is just depressed, but doesn't want to commit suicide just yet, does it mean they get a fine ?), so that will make things worse.

For a suicidal person, the above will just cause additional trauma and may even push him to commit the irreversible, especially if the person intents to commit suicide because of financial problems (lost a job, etc) and they get a nice 750€ fine. And having cops knocking a your door is already scary by itself, definitely not a good idea for a suicidal person.

In the end, your job as a forum moderator/administrator is just to relay data (forum posts), you may apply some filtering to delete posts against the rules of your community, but the personal lives of your members are none of your business. Delete the offending posts, send them a link/phone number to a support group and leave it at that.

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    In most cases, the difference between fake and real is based on what you say. If you say it was fake, you get a fine, if you say it was real, then you get help. The reason for the fine is to encourage people to a) not joke about it, which is bad and b) be honest about it and get help rather than trying to back pedal away from getting needed assistance. – AJ Henderson Jan 2 '15 at 5:20

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