By Robert E. Accordino, M.D.
The Defense Department makes the total fitness of service members a top priority, and that includes mental health and suicide prevention. Military suicide is the culmination of complex interactions among biological, social, economic, cultural and psychological factors operating at the individual, community and societal levels.
A complex problem such as suicide requires innovative solutions to support the health and wellness of our service members and their families. Recent technologies – and social media platforms specifically – may provide novel tools to reach individuals and provide greater understanding of their well- being, improving suicide prevention efforts.
Research funded by the DoD Suicide Prevention Office shows how information on social media can provide an important window into a person’s state of mind. Social media platforms provide potential opportunities for individuals to connect to support or treatment they need. For instance, social media posts that convey messages of despair or a pattern of increasing hopelessness over a period of time could spur outreach from peers, who in turn can help connect a friend or teammate to commanders and professionals.
Social media platforms could also provide resources to help individuals understand when they should intervene and how to intervene with a friend. Service members and individuals across our society are living in a new culture of sharing and connectivity. This landscape provides new opportunities to apply preventive measures and practice timely intervention.
At Jan. 18’s Secretary of the Army Symposium on Suicide Prevention, leaders from the military; mental health and public health professionals; and companies including Facebook, Google, Verily, LinkedIn and SnapChat explored how social media can be used to improve mental health and reduce incidents of suicide. The full-day symposium included presentations that provide a deeper understanding of how social media can be used to connect individuals who need it to appropriate care or resources. Working-group discussions followed these presentations.
At the symposium’s conclusion, a white paper of recommendations was produced for senior leaders in the military and social media companies. This document also will inform the development of an online training tool to educate service members, commanders, peers and family members on recognition and response to suicidal risk.
The symposium is in line with DoD efforts to translate and implement suicide prevention research findings in a rapid and culturally relevant manner. The promise of improving access to behavioral health care and reducing the number of suicides depends in part on the power of partnerships. The symposium will help to strengthen these partnerships to improve the lives of service members and civilians alike.
Dr. Robert E. Accordino, the White House Fellow to the Secretary of Defense, served as chair of the symposium.
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