Can twitter posts with the right message about suicide help us save lives?

Feb 22, 2021

Dr. Mark Sinyor examines the relationship between tweets and suicide rates

Can tweets with the right message about suicide help us save lives? When traditional media reports on people who have died by suicide, it can unfortunately lead to an increase in suicide rates. Dr. Mark Sinyor and his team have found that social media can have similar impacts. Now, they’re working to establish a better understanding of how we can communicate about suicide in ways that save lives, rather than endangering them.

What is the background that we should know about this suicide and social media?

MS: We know that traditional media reports about suicide are often associated with increases in suicide rates when they cover the deaths of individuals that their audience can relate to, such as celebrities. These increases are substantial. In the months following the death of Robin Williams, there was a 10% or greater increase in suicides in Canada, the United States, and Australia (the only three countries where this has been studied to date). That’s literally thousands of lives lost that likely would not have been if those reports hadn’t happened, and it emphasizes that we in the scientific community and journalists need to continue to work hard to ensure that suicide-related reporting does not cause harm. At the same time, there is increasing evidence that stories of survival and resilience in the context of suicidal crises can have the opposite effect and may reduce suicide deaths across the population.

What led you and your team to conduct this study?

MS: We’ve been working for a number of years now with journalists and social media platforms to improve the safety and scientific accuracy of suicide-related content. ​The specific content of media that we are exposed to really can have a dramatic effect on what we learn and how we behave. The question for this study is would we see this same relationship in widely disseminated social media posts?

What is the ​main message that you think the results convey?

MS: The study really aligns very closely with both the theory of social learning and contagion and what we know from studies of traditional media.  In essence, we saw that widely disseminated tweets about suicide death in general or of a local celebrity and tweets conveying hopeless messages were followed by more suicides. In contrast, tweets about hope, survival, and suicidal thinking without suicidal behavior were followed by fewer suicides. Educating people that they can survive and overcome suicidal crises may be one of the most powerful and under-used suicide prevention tools that we have. The message is quite clear that we need to do more to share stories of resilience across society.  We know that the overwhelming majority of people who contemplate suicide survive and go on to lead meaningful lives. We know that reaching out and receiving treatment can make an extraordinary difference. Suicide is never the only option.  That information is sadly often missing from our discourse. And we need to change that because it will save lives.

​Do you think that Twitter is a unique medium in regard to its influence on suicide rates, or would you anticipate that other social media platforms would result in similar effects?

MS: We studied Twitter largely for practical reasons. It is much easier to analyze a Tweet for content in a standardized way than, for example, a TikTok video. That said, we see the same patterns over and over again with different forms of media. Unless evidence unexpectedly emerges showing otherwise, I think it is reasonable to assume that the same overarching principles will apply to any media exposure including other social media platforms.

What do you think is most important for us to figure out next in this subject area?

MS: I think there are a few clear directions. First, this study really supports the importance of narrative in driving suicide and resilience contagion effects. Most work including media guidelines to date has really focused on the impact of piecemeal aspects of suicide information (e.g. we suggest not to include details of suicide methods and instead to include information on where to seek help). That is valuable but the importance of overarching narratives in our discourse and particularly the impact of stories of hope and survival has not received enough attention. We also need more translational research to understand how our efforts have changed discourse and in turn what impact that may have had on suicide rates. We need to understand more clearly how we can optimally translate what we know into meaningful change and fewer suicides. Both are areas of active research for our team.

Acknowledgements

Funded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

 

 

 

 

 

 

ImPACT Committee includes Krista Lanctôt, Alastair Flint, Meng-Chuan Lai and Simone Vigod.

Sinyor, M., Williams, M., Zaheer, R., Loureiro, R., Pirkis, J., Heisel, M. J., . . . Niederkrotenthaler, T. (2020). The association between Twitter content and suicide. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 000486742096980. doi:10.1177/0004867420969805

Mar
8 – 12
Mindfest 2021
| 12:00pm–12:00pm
Mar 29 Professorial Lecture: On Aging and Time: The People, the Places, the Purpose with Professor Tarek K. Rajji
Departmental | 5:30pm–7:00pm
Apr 16 University of Toronto Future of Psychotherapy Conference
Departmental | 8:30am–4:45pm
May 28 City-Wide Grand Rounds Part 3 - CAMH
Partner Hospitals | 12:00pm–1:00pm