Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States according to the most recent statistics. In 2009 alone, there were 36,909 suicides and those statistics likely don't account for the total number of deaths (many are classified as accidental). The statistics on suicide also don't include the enormous number of self-inflicted injuries with an estimated 472,000 emergency room visits in 2007 alone. Along with the deaths or injuries associated with suicide, there is also the enormous physical and emotional toll that suicide places on the ones left behind, whether family or friends.
Gathering suicide data is always difficult and makes research into suicide prevention far harder than it needs to be. Identifying people at risk for suicide requires being aware of suicide threats as they occur even though they are often ignored or only become obvious after the suicide occurs. Public health and mental health agencies typically only become involved when suicidal people ask for help or after an attempt occurs.
But what if it were possible to identify people at risk for suicide and provide them with help when they really need it? Though it is hardly practical (or legal) to intervene whenever someone makes a casual suicide threat, the rise of social media suggests a new way of preventing suicide deaths. The potential value of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks in identifying at-risk individuals and delivering suicide prevention information is only beginning to be understood.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today post.