Handling cries for help on Facebook

<i></i>

One of my Facebook friends appears to be spiralling out of control. She's going through a divorce, hates her job and her status updates roll in like dark clouds.

If she were a "real life" friend, I'd be around at her house washing her dishes, filling her fridge with vegies and homemade meals and encouraging her to go to her GP for a mental health plan.

But we're not "real life" friends. Like many of my Facebook friends, I haven't uttered a single word to her since high school – that was 20 years ago – and even then we weren't that close. Who am I to stage a cyber-intervention or give advice? What is the social etiquette of offering assistance to people you communicate with only via the "Like" button?

It's also hard to tell whether hers are genuine cries for help or whether my "friend" achieves some kind of cathartic release through the poetry of melancholic status updates. After all, there is a large performative element to social media. For some the mere expression of dark sentiments is therapy enough; having them acknowledged in a Facebook feed is a form of recognition.

Nevertheless, counsellor and author Elly Taylor says that people who send cries for help via Facebook tend to have problematic and broken relationships.

"They may have the desire to connect but not always the ability to do so," she says.

Part of me wants to tell my friend to just shut up for her own good and think through the consequences of making a public and permanent record of the lowest point in her life. I want her to think about whether she wants her children, future partners or employer to read these posts.

But it's pretty hard to dismiss a status update as harmless self-expression when it reads: "The love of my life has changed the locks. What's the point of anything anymore?"

Responding to a post like this with "thinking of you" or "*hugs*" seems woefully inadequate. And experience has taught me that cries for help on Facebook shouldn't be ignored.

A friend recently told of a similar situation where an old school friend was communicating his distress via status updates. Weeks later he committed suicide.

And who can forget New York teenager Amanda Cummings, who committed suicide last year after being bullied. One of her Facebook updates before her suicide was: "then ill go kill myself, with these pills, this knife, this life has already done half the job".

The paradox of social media is that it gives us a front-row view of the inner lives of people, many of whom are strangers. So many friends, so few relationships.

It's just a tad presumptuous to assume that a virtual stranger wants, or would welcome, my assistance. But my gut tells me that, wherever we can, we should do our best to act like a friend rather than a "friend".

One of the best things we can do in these situations, says Taylor, is let our friend know that we are interested in their life and that we care. Taylor does, however, caution against dishing out advice.

"If they are in a precarious mental health state you don't want to say the wrong thing, so it's best to encourage them to either seek professional, or more appropriate, help locally, or ring Lifeline or MensLine Australia.

"We also need to be realistic about how much help we can offer. It takes a long process to get somebody out of a depressed state and one comment on Facebook may not have enough impact to turn somebody around."

For the dearth of intimacy and dialogue, we are still sharing our lives with our Facebook friends one status update and cat meme at a time. If we are willing to welcome somebody into our Facebook feed then we should pause to think whether our "friends" at times require something more from us than a "Like" or a "Share".

This means broadening the superficiality of Facebook etiquette to reach out and let people know that even if we can't help to solve their problems, we do care and we are interested in their road to recovery.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of four books: 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and the Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com

 

Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

14 comments

  • I completely relate to this article. I have some friends on facebook that I just wish would be bit more discerning about what they put up on their page in relation to their personal life. It is hard to tell what is attention or sympathy seeking or a true cry for help. My friend said something great the other day - that she doesn't have any facebook friends that she wouldn't talk to if she were in the supermarket. I think this is great. I have been in a similar situation to this one above. And I responded by privately messaging the people to let them know I had seen that thing weren't great and offered a hand of support. It is a gesture, but I think a welcome one. Facebook can be great for staying connected but people use it so much to publicly broadcast their every thought. I find the best interactions happen with people off the public forum. I figure, if people truly are looking for some support they will appreciate the private message. If they are looking for attention, they will ignore it and continue to vent publicly so that everyone knows, and by everyone i mean, most likely one or two directly involved people.

    Commenter
    George Ginger
    Date and time
    April 10, 2013, 10:06AM
    • "Taylor does, however, caution against dishing out advice."

      This is the most important thing, especially when the advice gets pushy. Too often people see one small piece of the puzzle and think they are able to diagnose the whole solution. The best friends are the ones who provide support, not directions.

      Commenter
      Zebba
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 11:15AM
      • I've come across this many times - and at once stage when I was very low I was that person. Before I decided that facebook wasn't going to be the place for it. Now if I'm in a dark place I will find somebody to say it out loud to.

        It's so hard to tell how bad it is. There are some people in my feed who seem to vent a lot, in detail, whenever anything bad happens. For me, the alarm bells sound when a person who never usually talks like that on facebook does it suddenly. If it's out of character for them, that's when I truly worry. But it is hard if you don't 'know' them. Do you assume that there are people in their real life who have got their back? Can you even? I don't want to succumb to the bystander effect in an online context.

        Commenter
        Candace
        Date and time
        April 10, 2013, 11:22AM
        • I find a personal message on the person's messges page is always well recieved. You show that you are taking the time to contact them and you are thinking of them, but keep it short and sweet. People often need to know they are not the only one going thru a bad patch and that others have survived. Having lost a parent and young nephew in recent years I really feel for "friends " going thru similar circumstances, but I don't want to advertise this to all on facebook. You need to protect your own privacy as well as others.

          Commenter
          Monty's Mum
          Date and time
          April 10, 2013, 11:47AM
          • I'm often embarrassed for people that spill their guts all over the Facebook table. Usually it does come across as attention seeking or juvenile, like they haven't figured out how to deal with their feelings in an adult manner. I don't mean to sound heartless, I know some really are going through bad things and don't know how to deal with them, but a lot of the awkward status updates I see just come across as childish tantrums.

            Commenter
            Mellah
            Date and time
            April 10, 2013, 11:59AM
            • Agreed, it really is hard to sympathise when 90% of the Facebook comments that fall into this category of potential concern are really nothing more than the ramblings of a drama queen or a passive aggressive personality.

              People who decide that public Wall posts are the best way to bring up an issue/start a fight with their partner over something extremely trivial or petty are a prime example.

              Eventually it all becomes white noise, and you can miss the one in a hundred post that could generate a genuine cause for concern.

              Commenter
              Markus
              Location
              Canberra
              Date and time
              April 10, 2013, 12:52PM
            • You're right Markus it does all become white noise after a while. When I first became friends with someone I noticed she posted some negative things and I thought maybe she was genuinely having some bad experiences. After a while I realised she just whinges about everything and I have lost a lot of respect for her because of it. Some people really need a filter on what they post.

              Commenter
              Mellah
              Date and time
              April 10, 2013, 1:24PM
          • It's SO hard to watch someone you barely know go through something. On Facebook, everything is there for you to see, in black and white and it's hard to ignore.

            I really struggle with this and can relate to this article so much!

            Commenter
            Jasmine
            Date and time
            April 10, 2013, 1:08PM
            • I think I know what you mean, I recently went through my Facebook and unsubscribed or unfriended all the drama queens, especially with regard to high school 'friends'. I don't understand why people have this fascination with reading status updates from people you hardly know. Why would you even care about an old high school friends divorce?

              Commenter
              GS
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              April 10, 2013, 1:23PM
            • "I recently went through my Facebook and unsubscribed or unfriended all the drama queens,"

              I did that...most of my Facebook updates are now advertisements.

              Commenter
              Tim the Toolman
              Date and time
              April 10, 2013, 2:20PM

          More comments

          Comments are now closed