When “Saturday Night Live’s” Pete Davidson’s posted, “I don’t want to be on this earth anymore” and “I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last” on Instagram, friends, fans and followers reacted just as they probably would have if he’d told them the same thing on the phone. Some panicked — perhaps remembering the suicides of other people in the limelight, like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade — earlier this year. Some got snarky and actually joked about it. Others offered public expressions of love, hope and help.
It’s disturbing and hard to know what to do when a Facebook “friend” or a person you follow on Instagram or Twitter threatens to commit suicide on social media. But the truth is that most people — even some professionals — don’t know how to respond when someone makes that kind of statement in “real life.”
As a psychotherapist, I often see clients who suffer from the pain of depression, some of whom have expressed a desire to end their lives. Although most people who suffer from depression do not try to kill themselves, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide was ranked as the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2015, the most recent date for these statistics. Numerous studies have shown a wide range of reasons that someone thinks of committing suicide, but the holidays are one of the times that depression, sadness and loneliness begin to take hold of many people.
Despite the initial hiccup when it seemed that some of his followers thought he was joking, people got at least one hugely important thing right: They let him know that they heard that he was suffering and that they cared. Pain is there, whether someone has threatened suicide once or a hundred times, and it is often hard to hear, recognize or address it. But once you do hear it, it’s important to let the person know that you are there, and that you hear that they are hurting. On social media, that often means a public statement of the sort that lots of people sent Davidson.
If you know the person on a more personal level, you can offer to come over to be with them and, once you’re with them, if it seems that they are going to act on the impulse, try to get them to go to a hospital emergency room. It’s important that they not be alone, but well-intentioned fans or vague acquaintances who try to make personal contact can make things worse, not better.
Finally, keep in mind that such a public declaration of someone’s pain can quickly turn into public humiliation. Someone who has, perhaps impulsively, shared his or her inner turmoil with the world might be terribly embarrassed and ashamed about all of the attention that comes as a result of the sharing. As a follower, you can let them know that you still care and that you understand what they were saying to be a way of asking for some help. And then, encourage them to get that help.