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Can Schools Use Social Media to Prevent Teen Suicide?

Veronica Zaragovia, KUT News
A sign on a classroom door at Lanier High School, urging other students to seek counseling after a student shot and killed himself there this week.

Social Media sites have increasingly become a platform where teenagers turn to document their daily activities and thoughts—some which can be serious. Friends of the student who committed suicide at Lanier High School this week say he posted a note and a photo of himself with the weapon on Facebook before he committed suicide.

The student's tragic death comes as researchers from Brigham Young University have found young people with suicidal thoughts or behaviors may be using things like Twitter or Facebook to cry for help.

For three months, seven researchers at the university analyzed tweets from across the country—searching for words or phrases commonly thought of as exhibiting a risk of suicide.  

“They talk about feeling lonely, marginalized, beaten down and hopeless," says Joshua West, one of the study’s co-authors. The researchers also monitored tweets that referenced gun ownership and references to violence or self-harm.

“Our hope was to see if we can use social media as a tool to get an immediate pulse about the health of individuals in the US," he says.

The study compared those tweets in individual states to the rate of suicide in each state—and found a strong correlation between the two sets of data.

Researchers say the results could help counselors or teachers identify students who are at risk for suicide.

“Their tweets are going out to those who are following them and others maybe this is an opportunity to reach out," West says.

Karen Ranus is with the Austin Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She says the organization has noticed a trend in young people sharing suicidal thoughts or behavior on social media.

“When people are giving things away—or reckless behavior—it’s saying, ‘someone, stop me.,'" Ranus says.

Ranus says sharing these thoughts or feelings online can be easier for some teens.

“Teens have this sense that social media hides them that they’re not as visible—even though they are—so sometimes they’re far more open with feelings with their deep thoughts they might not say to best friend. They might post it on Facebook or Twitter.  It’s a great place for us to be paying attention," she says.

Joshua West with Brigham Young says for many schools, monitoring student’s social media activity brings up questions of privacy.

“How do you respond when you see something that is alarming that might be an indicator of suicide risk? That’s a challenge," he says.

Right now, employees for the Austin School District aren’t allowed to look at student’s Facebook or Twitter profiles.

“It’s a privacy issue," says Lanier High School Counselor Eboni Calbow.

For some, the incident at Lanier is also a security concern. Like many schools around the country, Austin schools don’t have metal detectors, nor does the district search student’s bags when they enter. 

“Our campuses are schools, they’re not prisons," said AISD Police Chief Eric Mendez. "They’re not designed to control access. They’re built in a way that’s inviting and open to students and staff parents. So they have multiple entry points. So we do the best we can to ensure the safety of every student every day.”

He says metal detectors also come with a price.

“With every metal detector you have to have a person manning the metal detector, which is an additional cost," Mendez argued, saying the district has safety procedures and protocols in place, but the district depends on the community to help keep the schools safe.

“We have to rely on students to step forward when they believe a student has a weapon that may cause harm to themselves or others," he said.

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