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When a cry for help reaches Facebook

It was the third message that finally got my attention. “I EXPECT MORE . . . BUT YOU MAY HAVE TO BE INCARCERATED,” it screamed on the networking site LinkedIn last November. “FOR YOUR OFFENSE TO OUR CROWN . . . DO NOT TAKE IT PERSONAL.”

At this point, I was beginning to take it personally. The author — a vague acquaintance — had been sending me nonsensical messages on social media since 2012. “Bad time to say this, but what is going on for real?” the first Facebook message read. “Nevermind, let me have a couple of dreams, not like that . . . just a vision. You Mariah?”

From the beginning, I didn’t respond. I barely knew the woman; more than a decade ago she lived down the hall from me at college. We were little more than acquaintances. I don’t know where she lives and have no way to contact her beyond social media. I figured the gibberishy message had been sent in error and soon forgot about it.

Then, after a lull of two years, she reemerged with another Facebook message sent directly to me: “BEWARE!!!” she wrote, apropos of nothing. It startled me enough to click over to her profile, which, to put it mildly, was distressing. The page was plastered with ramblings that when decipherable at all suggested paranoia and delusions of grandeur. There were videos, too, in which my acquaintance stared blankly into the camera for minutes at a time.

If the Internet is a public forum, then social media is the megaphone installed at the center of it. Certainly it attracts oversharers, the ones who hash out breakups in Facebook statuses and live-tweet their days in embarrassing detail. We lurk in the cyber shadows and tsk and snicker — this is modern voyeurism at its most entertaining. But then there are people like my acquaintance who seem to be in a different, more dangerous kind of distress that seems private but is broadcast, intentionally or not, to a wide network of onlookers. It looks suspiciously like mental illness.

From the start, I was reluctant to respond to the messages. What would I say? I felt strange intruding on what seemed like a private matter. Surely someone who knew my acquaintance better would see her Facebook posts and intervene.

No one did. As I watched her profile with mounting concern — the posts just kept coming and her thousand-some Facebook friends remained silent — doing nothing felt increasingly wrong. I thought of the infamous 1964 Queens murder of Kitty Genovese, in which more than a dozen people were reported to have witnessed or heard the fatal stabbing attack but failed to come to Genovese’s aid. While many of the claims about people unwilling to act were later proved to be exaggerated, the media fallout from the original story sparked interest in a social psychological phenomenon known as the “bystander effect,” which postulates that the more bystanders there are to a crime, the less likely that any of them will help. A larger crowd, it seems, diffuses the individual’s sense of responsibility.

Now, I feared that I was experiencing a bystander effect for the modern age.

I contacted Facebook for guidance. Policy communications representative William Nevius directed me to a company blog post about Facebook’s newest mental health initiative, which allows family and friends to tag troubling posts. According to Facebook, teams around the world review the posts — prioritizing the most serious, like those threatening self-injury — and send help to the distressed party: contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for example, and suggestions to chat with a friend about their feelings.

Still looking for answers, I called Keris Myrick of the Center for Mental Health Services at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA. Myrick suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which is similar to schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Despite her diagnoses, she has said that she has developed coping mechanisms that help her live a rich and productive life, including the cultivation of a supportive Twitter community that knows her triggers.

Informing friends, online or otherwise, of symptoms to look for is important, Myrick said. “I can say, ‘I’m not really feeling well,’ or something that maybe doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense, and people will say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ” she said of past Twitter interactions. Even in the midst of an erratic episode, Myrick said, messages of concern can get through and motivate a person to get help.

That said, Myrick has been conflicted in the past about whether to reach out to a troubled person. Mental illness varies greatly from person to person, she said, and there’s not always a clearly right thing to do. Still, Myrick said, there are some best practices.

“Many of them are things like not being judgmental, and reaching out and engaging the person in conversation,” she said. “Remind a friend that mental illness is treatable and recovery is possible.”

In all, the experience left me feeling bleak. I’d done the best I could, but that didn’t feel like enough. It’s clear that current tools designed to help people with mental illness don’t account for situations like the one I encountered with my college acquaintance. But given the ubiquity of social media, my gut tells me that there are more people like her out there than ever.

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