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When a cry for help rings out on Facebook, who answers — and how?

Published by Daniel Brooks Moore on

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?”

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

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 thought of another friend from college who began behaving erratically on Facebook a few months after graduation. His breathless posts — he would sometimes publish 10 of them in a five-minute span — featured anything from religious rants to commentary on the latest Beyoncé single. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but things were much worse than they seemed.

“Basically, in 2009, I started getting more and more energy, sleeping less and less,” he told me over the phone recently, asking to have his name withheld to preserve his privacy. “I started getting more religious, and then it got to the point where I decided I needed to administer to the homeless.” He began picking up homeless people and buying clothes and other necessities for them.

“It was coming from a good place, but it was very dangerous,” he said. “I wound up smoking crack with some homeless people, and then I decided that I was the second coming of Jesus Christ, and it was my mission to bring about the Revelation. I did actually act a lot like Jesus — I was kind and selfless and that stuff. But I was also crazy.”

Alarmed by his behavior, my friend says his parents took him to specialists, who ultimately diagnosed bipolar disorder and got him help. Since then, he’s had a few manic episodes, often manifested on the Internet.

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When he looks back at some of what he wrote, he says, “it’s just crazy. I’m like, ‘I’m so embarrassed, I can’t believe I did that.’ It’s stuff I don’t even remember.”

He does remember, however, that several friends reached out, some messaging him to express concern: “People saying, ‘I’m praying for you.’ That kind of stuff is nice to hear, but it didn’t help me get better, you know?” But he wishes these friends had contacted his relatives, who weren’t following him that closely on Facebook, when they noticed how odd his posts had become.

Given his history, I worried that responding directly to my “BEWARE” acquaintance would be a waste of time. Instead, I fired off Facebook messages to three people who appeared to be related to her. I explained who I was and that I was concerned about her recent online behavior. “I just want to make sure her family is aware and able to help her, should she need help,” I wrote. I received no responses.

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.

But my acquaintance’s mes­sages and status updates didn’t seem a fit for the Facebook tool. When I tried to use it, it asked if my acquaintance’s posts were threatening, violent or suicidal, or whether they referenced graphic violence, vandalism or drug use. My answer was no. There were no buckets for posts that were strange, jumbled, plain worrisome or otherwise out of character. When I asked if another tool might better fit my purposes, I got no response from Nevius.

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.”

Myrick also suggested calling SAMHSA’s National Helpline, which offers referral and information services in English and Spanish 24 hours a day. (The phone number is 800-662-HELP and related website.)

I called. The dispatcher told me that she gets calls all the time from people like me who are concerned about individuals they barely know, although the social media twist was a new one to her. Regardless, she explained, my options were limited, given that I didn’t know where my acquaintance lives. Even if I did, the recourse might be as drastic as trying to get her committed to a mental health facility. This frightened me, and I said as much.

Being concerned is “a very kind thing to do, and I honor you for doing that,” she replied. “But you can only give people information, and they’re going to do what they want with that.” She suggested I send my acquaintance a message expressing concern and including a link to the help line’s website. “If it were me personally, that’s what I would do.”

So that’s what I did in early April. For a month I nervously scanned my inbox. And then one day, a reply: “THANK YOU . . . THE ENTIRE NETWORK MAY NEED TO CHANGE,” it read. “I WROTE BECAUSE MANY WERE FAILING TO RESPOND. BUT, I REALLY APPRECIATE THE CONCERN.”

And then the floodgates opened. My acquaintance began barraging me with links to strange YouTube videos, and she made jumbled pleas to speak with me on the phone about topics unrelated to her mental state.

I was distraught and confused. I asked myself: Do I further involve myself? Do I have the power to help her at all? What have I gotten myself into? In the end, I repeated my previous suggestion that she call the hotline. And then I logged off.

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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