How do we reach out to those experiencing thoughts of suicide?

New research at OHSU shows innovative ways to use social media to proactively reach at-risk military veterans.

New research at OHSU shows innovative ways to use social media to proactively reach at-risk military veterans.

Many of us are familiar with the high rate of suicide among military veterans. On an average day, 20 will end their own lives. But what you may not know is that many of these people are not seeking health care for the issues giving rise to their emotional crisis.

Here in Oregon, for instance, a study found that 78% of veterans who died by suicide had not used the VA in the year before their death – not even once. Even for non-veterans, a similar pattern emerges: more often than not, those who die by suicide are not getting mental health treatment.

This has led me to think about how we can do a better job reaching people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide.

For veterans, I think this requires approaches that get beyond the confines of the VA health care system. And some of our recent research suggests that proactive outreach on social media may be especially promising.

To come to this conclusion, I designed a study in which we designed a series of social media advertisements. Since Facebook is by far the biggest player in the social media space, we placed the ads there, requesting veterans participate in an online survey. The survey was hosted on a secure website, completely separate from Facebook. Ultimately about 600 veterans enrolled in our study.

What we found surprised me.

First off, we found that more than 1 in 5 veterans in our study were experiencing thoughts of suicide. These were current thoughts, not some remnant of the distant past. And if you think those numbers are high, you’d be right. In the general population, less than 1 in 25 people are struggling with suicidal thoughts.

Here’s the good news, though. Certain images and headlines used in our ads seemed to be particularly appealing to veterans. For instance, we found that ads with a headline asking people to share the ad with a veteran generated substantially more response. Other headlines seemed to flop, such as, “You can tell us how to design new health programs for veterans.”

Even more intriguing was that veterans experiencing suicidal thoughts also had a predilection to respond to particular ads.

We don’t know the reasons why such preferences emerged – that will take more research to understand. But the implications still seem pretty clear to me.

I think there are opportunities to develop and evaluate messages on social media meant to promote suicide prevention. Let’s call this evidenced-based outreach on social media.

We can do this to help veterans. And we can do it for teens, American Indians, and other groups that are known to be at a heightened risk of suicide. I think this type of evidence-based outreach can make a real difference for our loved ones struggling with thoughts of self-harm. It is a first critical step in getting connected to life-saving mental health treatment.

If you are having a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.