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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.