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Associated Press, Published December 13 2011

Facebook aims to help prevent suicide

MENLO PARK, Calif. – Help is just a few clicks away on Facebook for people expressing suicidal thoughts.

The social networking site launched a new feature Tuesday that enables users to connect with a counselor through a confidential chat session triggered after a friend reports distressing content.

The new tool has several benefits, experts say, in the quest to reduce the number of nearly 100 Americans who commit suicide every day.

First, it brings quick intervention at times when it can be of most help. Second, it enables troubled people to start a chat over an instant messaging system that many find more comfortable than speaking on the phone with a counselor.

“We’ve heard from many people who say they want to talk to someone but don’t want to call. Instant message is perfect for that,” said Lidia Bernik, associate project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The service is the latest tool from Facebook aimed at improving safety on its site, which has more than 800 million users. This year, it announced changes to how users report bullying, offensive content and fake profiles.

“One of the big goals here is to get the person in distress into the right help as soon as possible,” said Fred Wolens, Facebook’s public policy manager.

In recent years, distressed people have posted their final words on Facebook.

In one high-profile case in September 2010, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly used a webcam to spy on his intimate encounter with another man.

Clementi had posted on his Facebook account: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

Google and Yahoo have long provided Lifeline’s phone number as the first result when someone searches for “suicide.” Through email, Facebook directed users to the hotline or encouraged friends to call police if they perceived someone was about to do harm.

The new service goes a step further. Here’s how it works:

A user spots a suicidal comment on a friend’s page. He then clicks on a “report” button next to the posting that leads to a series of questions about the nature of the post, including whether it is violent, harassing, hate speech or harmful behavior.

If harmful behavior is clicked, then self-harm, Facebook’s user safety team reviews it and sends it to Lifeline. Once the comment is determined to be legitimate, Facebook sends an email to the user who originally posted the thoughts perceived as suicidal. The email includes Lifeline’s phone number and a link to start a confidential chat session.

The recipient decides whether to respond.

Facebook also sends an email to the person who reported the content to let the person know that the site responded. If a suicide or other threats appear imminent, Facebook encourages friends to call law enforcement.