Facebook is introducing a tool that makes it easier for people to reach out to friends they think could be suicidal.

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How many times had Stephen Paul Miller seen Facebook messages from friends riffing on some variant of “I can’t take it anymore”? Impossible to count. They popped up all the time and he thought little of it — just venting from frustrated fellow students, he assumed.

But one of those messages — “This is the end” — turned out to be the last attempt at communication from a friend who hung himself the same night. Five years later Miller, a social worker with the suicide-prevention group Forefront, takes nothing for granted.

The propensity to post emotional-status updates on social media is sometimes skewered. But each year about 40,000 people commit suicide, many of them reaching out via Facebook and other sites. Those who work in suicide prevention now see social media as an important channel for intervention.

“One of the biggest things that we believe prevents suicide is connectedness — to families, churches, communities — and here, with Facebook, we have this huge potential to connect people,” said Jennifer Stuber, faculty director at Forefront, which is based on the University of Washington campus.

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Last summer, the social-media behemoth contacted Forefront, asking for guidance on the best ways to reach out to those in distress. On Wednesday, they plan to announce the results, a suite of options available on Facebook’s “support” channel — videos, tips for depressurizing and ways that concerned friends can offer help.

Facebook has partnered with a UW team to get help to users considering suicide.
Facebook has partnered with a UW team to get help to users considering suicide.

Key to the effort are messages, written by Facebook, that can be edited by anyone wanting to let a friend know that assistance is available.  Miller believes that could be essential because many people simply don’t know what to say.

“I remember checking my phone and thinking ‘this just is not right,’ ” he recalled of the night five years ago when he saw his friend’s final post. “But I didn’t know what to do. I felt kind of embarrassed to reach out to him. I was worried about being awkward or overstepping boundaries. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to call him tomorrow.’ ”

By then, it was too late.

Despite the urgency — and several recent reports suggesting that mental health needs are rising on college campuses — Stuber was initially skeptical when Facebook approached her.

“To be honest. I thought talking to Facebook was like talking to the Death Star,” she said. “But I’ve been really impressed with how much they really seem to care about having a positive impact.”

Rather than talking with experts only, the Facebook team asked Forefront to connect them with people who had attempted suicide, in order to learn exactly what kinds of information could help at crucial moments. The answer: simplicity and either-or options. Very step-by-step.

Safeguarding the privacy of users in distress was critical to Stuber, and the Facebook team insists that all communication between the company and posters reporting a potentially suicidal user remain confidential.

“If someone is promoting suicide or self-injury, we’ll delete the post and send them resources,” said Rob Boyle, a product manager on the company’s Safety team. “We care about our users, especially the ones that are at the hardest place in their life. Forefront told us that the one thing that people need is feeling connected, and the thing that Facebook is really good at is connecting people. That’s what inspired us.”