As a community manager or administrator, the situations we have to deal with are as varied as life itself. For all talk about the online and offline worlds being different, at the end of the day, they have more in common than they do dissimilar. Unfortunately, this is not just the fun, easy parts of life, but also the difficult, challenging ones.

Though it may not be one of the more enjoyable parts of our job, it’s smart and important to ponder what circumstances we may face, even if we haven’t yet faced them. This leads me to what I’d like to talk about today: suicide on our online community, and how we can most effectively help and protect everyone involved. This isn’t about suicide in general, why people think about it, the repercussions of it or anything of that nature – this is strictly about how we should approach it on our communities.

When we think about suicide on an online community or social space, the two recent examples that will probably jump to your head are Abraham K. Biggs’ suicide on Justin.TV and the suicide of Megan Meier, apparently driven by messages exchanged through MySpace.

Before I jump into this subject, I want to be clear that I believe that we are all responsible for our actions as individuals. I don’t think it’s fair to blame Justin.TV, MySpace or any community or social site for the actions of an individual in this sort of case. The nature of communication itself dictates otherwise.

Even if community members egg someone on, the community itself, or the company behind it, does not share responsibility, unless they themselves endorsed it and willingly allowed it. Anyone who encourages someone to do this may share some responsibility, but it is not the primary responsibility and, for my part, I believe that those people will have to live with the repercussions of their actions for the rest of their lives and that is a burden to bare.

However, with that said, that doesn’t mean that total ignorance is an excuse, either. Those of us who care about our communities and care about what we do will not be satisfied with that and will want to be as proactive as possible with respect to all that is at stake in these delicate situations. Since my experience with suicide is limited to third party recounts and research that I have done, I spoke with Linda Dunlap, the Education Director of The Jason Foundation, Inc., an organization dedicated to preventing youth suicide.  She was kind enough to offer me feedback and thoughts on these challenges and on aspects of this article and I am thankful for that.

If a suicide thread is posted in your forums, it’ll be natural for members of your site to try to help. The potential is there, as well, for questionable people to try to hurt the situation. Well meaning or not, members can inadvertently do more harm than good by trying to help. It can be dicey to allow your members to comment on this situation and for your community to become deeply invested in it.

This is why it can be a good idea to remove the post, unless you have a strong feeling that doing so would do more harm than good. Do not dismiss it as someone fooling around – take it seriously. If they, by some chance, do turn out to be someone who is not suicidal, who was just looking to play with people’s emotions and get attention, removing it will discourage them from doing so and you’ll have done the right thing by taking it seriously. This is not a matter for your community, it is far too sensitive for that. After the post has been removed from the public, contact the member directly. In an ideal world, it’s best to consider what you’d like to say and, more importantly, what you’d like your staff members to say – before such a time comes up.

The American Association of Suicidology, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, The Jason Foundation and SAVE all have helpful guidelines and ideas for talking to and helping someone who may be suicidal. They all speak of empathy and understanding and the need for action in the form of professional help from doctors, trained personnel and emergency service providers.

The difficulty with this, for community administrators and staff, is that we most likely do not have the relationship with most of our members where we would be the right person to talk to them directly about how they are feeling. Yes, we could attempt it, but we’re not family and we’re probably not a close friend. And, not being a professional, we are concerned that we may do more harm than good.

Understandably, we also have a fear of legal repercussions for a misstep, however well meaning. Getting involved this deeply in someone’s life could open us up to legal action and the scorn and criticism from those that were close to the person, the media, etc., if the worst should happen. It may not be fair, but it is the world we live in. Our responsibility is not to one member, but to the community as a whole.

It’s not insensitive to talk about this – it’s just realistic. We’re compassionate and we want to help – not shun people – and, because of that, we might think we can solve it, but there is such a thing as biting off more than you can chew. It’s important to understand that professional care is paramount in this circumstance. Would you expect a doctor to be able to run your community? OK, then why would you expect to be able to do the work of someone trained to handle these circumstances?

For this reason, it is advisable to contact the member directly and urge them to call an emergency number, a suicide prevention hot line (like 1-800-273-TALK or 1-877-778-CARL in the U.S), chat online with qualified people (like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline) or go to their closest emergency room as soon as possible.

One question you may have is “I know what the emergency number is in my country, but what about the country where the member is located?” Thanks to the internet, this can be easily found out. Both Wikipedia and the Santa Clara Country Fire Department maintain helpful lists featuring the emergency numbers in most, if not all countries you are likely to encounter. In addition, the International Association for Suicide Prevention maintains a resource of international suicide prevention lines. Making these links a resource available in your staff area will go a long way to a quick response should this situation arise.

In addition, you know what country or countries you receive the most traffic from. As such, you could familiarize yourself with the most popular country or countries and the resources available to citizens who live there, in advance, and prepare contact templates for those countries, like the ones that I will show you in a moment. I operate in the United States and most of my visitors are from his country, so that is the perspective that I speak from.

Developing policies in advance helps to limit confusion in the event of a suicide threat. In the book, I wrote about my situations guide, which is a separate document from the staff member guidelines, that details common scenarios and how they should be handled. An explanation of site policy pertaining to suicide threats would be a nice addition to this document. Here is what this might look like:

Suicide Threats

If a member suggests or hints, even in the slightest way, that they may be suicidal, it should be taken seriously. As a community, our members may try to help the person in public. In doing so, they may actually cause more harm than good. This is a matter of life and death and is a matter that is above our community and one that we are not suited to handle. The best thing that we can do is to steer them toward professionals who are trained to deal with this sort of situation.

First, send the member who may be suicidal a private message using the Suicide Threat template in our Contact Templates. It may also be your inclination to try to help the person directly – outside of simple expressions of appreciation and concern for them, please resist this urge. It is important that the member be directed to the right people as soon as possible and this is how you can do the most good. After the message is sent, please e-mail me at mentioning the situation. Finally, please remove the post and document it in Problem Users. After this, contact each member who had replied to the post with the Suicide Threat Response template and document these messages in Problem Users.

If the member has shared both a supposed city of residence with us, as well as a first and last name, efforts will be made to contact law enforcement in that city.

Also, I am a fan of contact templates, which are template messages that you and your staff can use to contact members on your community related to guideline violations or things that you commonly need to contact your members about. This sort of event won’t be common, most likely, but having a message prepared and ready for your staff to use can eliminate any doubts when it comes to your confidence in handling the situation. It might also be feasible to have a template in place to send to anyone who may have replied to the member, to make sure that they know you are taking it seriously.

Here are some suggestions for how this could work:

Suicide Threat

Before contacting the member, please look on their profile to see if they have indicated the country where they live. Failing that, check the IP address on their most recent post and use it to find an approximate location for them. With this information, please send one of the following three private messages:

If they are located in the United States:


You are a member of our community and we appreciate you.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, it is important that you discuss them with someone who is qualified to help. Please call 1-800-273-TALK or chat online with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

If you feel that you may be an immediate danger to yourself, please call 911 or go to your local hospital emergency room right away.


<YOUR NAME> Sensei

If they are located outside of the United States, but they have indicated the country where they are located:

Please consult with the International Association for Suicide Prevention to see if there is a suicide prevention line in their country. Next, visit the Wikipedia’s Emergency telephone number page and the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s Emergency Contact Numbers page and locate the country where the person is located to find their emergency number. Then, please send this message, carefully ensuring to include their country’s emergency number in the provided space:


You are a member of our community and we appreciate you.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, it is important that you discuss them with someone who is qualified to help. Please call <PREVENTION HOTLINE NUMBER>.

If you feel that you may be an immediate danger to yourself, please call <EMERGENCY NUMBER> or go to your local hospital emergency room right away.


<YOUR NAME> Sensei

If their location is unknown:


You are a member of our community and we appreciate you.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, it is important that you discuss them with someone who is qualified to help, such as a suicide hotline in your country. Please visit this link to find the appropriate number:

If you feel that you may be an immediate danger to yourself, please call your local emergency number or go to your local hospital emergency room right away. If you are unsure of the right number to call, please visit this link and call the number next to the country where you are located:


<YOUR NAME> Sensei

Suicide Threat Response

This message goes to a member that had responded to a suicide threat posted by another member.


I wanted to let you know that I have removed the message posted by <USERNAME> that discussed thoughts of suicide. This is very, very serious and is something that is above our community and requires professional attention and care. We are attempting to ensure that <USERNAME> receives this care, as soon as possible. Due to the sensitive nature of this matter, I cannot go into further detail at this time, but I did want you to know that we are treating it with the utmost importance and respect.

Thank you for your time and understanding.


<YOUR NAME> Sensei

I considered the format of these messages carefully and settled on these for a couple of reasons. Though you may know this person some, there is a good chance you don’t know them extremely well. As such, you don’t want to get too personal or say things that may or may not be true about them. But, I also didn’t want to be too sterile or cold, so that is why I included the first sentence. And the most important thing is to get them into the hands of a professional as soon as possible. So, that is why I included what followed – and why the message as a whole is very short.

It can be easy to feel helpless in a situation like this. You send your message and… who knows what happens then? That is one of the downsides of internet based communication, you could say. Some may wonder “why not do more?” Whether or not you can do more, really depends on how much information that you have. As indicated in the Situations Guide entry above, if the person has provided a first and last name and location, I will attempt to call the police department in that city and inform them of the situation. But, if we don’t have at least those three things, it becomes very difficult.

We do, most likely, have a legitimate IP address. What can we do with that? Sadly, not much. Most police departments aren’t equipped to take an IP address and turn it into something meaningful – much less in a short enough period of time to potentially stop someone who is seriously contemplating suicide. The location of an IP address can hardly be trusted – presently, my IP address lists a town that is more than 250 miles away from me.

Generally speaking, forums aren’t monitored 24/7. Far from it, in fact. And even if there is a member of staff on the site, a thread could easily be missed. But, the important thing is to take action when it is seen.

You will feel a range of emotions and you’ll want to do more, but you also have to understand that you can only do what you can and you have to be able to live with that. “This is a complex issue and we can only do what we can do, and hope it makes a difference,” Ms. Dunlap told me.

Regardless of what happens, unless you are there urging someone to commit such an act – you are not responsible and though it’s natural for you to feel sadness, it’s unfair to take blame. This is why it is important to think about it before it happens – know what you will do, have a plan of action and do your best to execute it. This will put you in the best position to protect your community, to help people and, perhaps, to save a life.

Update (August 5, 2013): I adjusted some of the content to suggest the possibility of allowing the suicide threat post to remain, as outlined in this update. I also added the link to the online chat room for the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, updated the contact templates and made a few other small changes to improve this article as a resource.