A new nationwide strategy to prevent suicides, especially among U.S. military veterans and younger Americans, will tap Facebook Inc as part of a community-driven push to report concerns before someone takes their own life.
The new Facebook service will allow users to report suicidal comments they see online from friends. The website will then send the potential victims an email urging them to call the hotline as well as chat confidentially online with a counselor.
"All too often, people in crisis do not know how - or who - to ask for help," Facebook Global Vice President for Public Policy Marne Levine said in a statement. "We have a unique opportunity to provide the right resources to our users in distress, when and where they need them most."
The effort, announced on Monday, is the first new plan in more than a decade to address what officials say is a growing public health issue and aims to curb deaths over the next 10 years.
"It takes the entire community to prevent suicides. It's not just one individual," says U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin. "We call can play a role."
The plan, which also includes $55.6 million in grant funding for suicide prevention programs, will be released in Washington on Monday by Benjamin, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Army Secretary John McHugh.
Suicide is a growing concern, taking the lives of twice as many people on average as homicide, officials said. They said on average, about 100 Americans take their own lives each day. More than 8 million U.S. adults seriously thought about suicide in the last year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
U.S. officials are also seeking to increase awareness in other media outlets with several new public service announcements to promote the national suicide prevention line, which is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Of particular concern are the nation's 23 million veterans.
President Barack Obama has made caring for those who have served in the military a top concern, including tackling mental illness, but it has been a struggle.
Despite his administration's efforts to expand prevention efforts for veterans, including beefing up a special hotline, the number of suicides appear to be growing. There were 17,754 suicide attempts among veterans last year - about 48 a day - up from 10,888 in 2009, data from the Department of Veterans Affairs showed.
"Suicide is one of the most challenging issues we face," McHugh said in a statement. "In the Army, suicide prevention requires soldiers to look out for fellow soldiers. We must foster an environment that encourages people in need to seek help and be supported."
The last major U.S. plan tackling suicide was in 2001. Since then, there has been more research and data about suicide and who is most at risk, as well as the best strategies to reach those people, Benjamin said.
"We now know what we didn't know 15 years ago - or we didn't understand - which is that suicide is preventable. So prevention is where we're focusing now," she said.
"We didn't really talk about suicide much," Benjamin added. "We didn't bring up the idea of suicide. We were afraid it might give someone a new idea. Now we know that it's important to ask 'Have you have suicidal thoughts?' or 'Are you thinking about suicide?' and say if you are, there are ways to get help."
Overall, any new effort that might encourage people to talk about how they are feeling would help, especially if trained experts can quickly reach those at risk, said Cheryl Sharp, who tried to commit suicide nine times between the ages of 13 and 24.
"If you're putting that out on Facebook, you're saying 'I am desperate, and I need help,' but you may not be able to make the phone call," said Sharp, now 55 and a special adviser on trauma-informed services at the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, which represents state and local mental health organizations.
"You don't wait until someone says 'I want to die'. There are things that lead up to that," she said. "There is some way to make some kind of connection, and it's an online connection. I think it's good."
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