Responding to a Threat of Suicide in Your Community Forum
The anonymous and easily accessible nature of online communities inevitably attracts people who have difficulties with social interaction. Numbered among these is of course the aforementioned trolls, and a number of essentially harmless other characters. Online communities are also a haven for people with a variety of mental problems and illnesses, and you will inevitably come across such people in your community. It should go without saying that mental illness in all its forms should not be stigmatised. Whatever someone suffers from, they are undoubtedly still capable in most cases of being great contributors to your forums. Indeed, one of the most positive elements of online communities is their ability to provide a social outlet to those who may find such interactions difficult in “the real world”.
It’s important to bear in mind that while mental illness doesn’t define a person, such problems are serious and in some cases will cause problems in your community. In my time as a Community Manager I have, for example, dealt with numerous suicide threats. These sometimes take the form of private messages sent to moderators or users, or of users simply alluding to or directly stating their intention to harm themselves in public forums. I’ve also had worried users bring me chatlogs from offsite IM services from users making such threats. Needless to say, dealing with these cases can be harrowing for all involved.
In cases like this it is important to bear in mind that you, as a community leader, are not responsible for the mental wellbeing of your users. Unless you are a medical professional you should not attempt to intervene, give counselling or in any way think that you can “fix” a user who is going through a breakdown. You may end up enabling their behaviour or making it worse. You may even inadvertently open yourself up to legal action in the case of something going terribly wrong. This may sound like a rephrasing of “hey, it’s not my problem”, but your responsibility in this scenario is to make sure that people receive the proper, professional help that they need.
My personal policy is perhaps a flawed one, but it has produced good results. Once a user appears to be undergoing any kind of meltdown or threatens to harm themselves, our moderators will isolate them from the community. We provide them with links to suicide hotlines and other resources, but do not allow them to use the forums as a form of crisis counselling or therapy. In every case that I can recall, the user has later cooled down and come back to the forums, to be welcomed with open arms. While we have lost members to suicide, it has in each case come as a bolt from the blue and has yet to follow a threat made in the community. This is not to suggest that you (and other members of your community) should not show support and compassion to members who are going through a rough time. In fact, such displays will often show the best side of your community. I merely want to stress that there are limits to the ability of untrained people to help people in crisis. Dealing with such people can be heart wrenching and leave you with terrible feelings of guilt, but you should be sure not to let such feelings prevent you from helping them receiving the help they really need.
http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org is a US based suicide support line
http://www.befrienders.org is an international site providing emotional support to many countries and in many languages
Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.