My husband’s been reading John T Cacioppo’s Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection and as usual when he’s enthralled by something, I’ve heard about it at great length.
While I have yet to read it (I’m too cheap to buy a second copy instead of waiting for his) it has made me think a lot about loneliness and online communities at Christmas.
For some people, through physical and perceived isolation, online communities and social networks are a main or even sole route of social interaction.
Detailed 2004 research by Dr Vladeta Ajdacic-Gross of the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, at the University of Zurich found that suicide rates actually decline dramatically in the run up to Christmas Day – Christmas Eve has the lowest suicide rate for the whole year.
The trouble starts after Christmas, suicide rates increase dramatically, with a peak in early January.
So it’s important to know what the realistic risks are, and when, before putting any plans in place.
Any seasonal suicide sensitivity needs to continue into the New Year, and your process for dealing with a suicide threat needs to be written and ready all year round.
No-one wants to write a will and it’s no different as a community, no-one relishes writing a suicide policy. But every community needs one, even the happiest, most sunny side up communities.
- Every community needs to be supportive, not just support communities.
- Every community contains people. Where there are people, there is unpredictable behaviour.
Several professions are at particularly heightened risk of depression and suicide, and consequently even a professional community aimed at sharing knowledge and best practise could be a platform for lonely, isolated people.
On one of our communities, which is mainly a place to discuss health and beauty, sometimes life gets in the way. During a product trial, a happy-go-lucky community member experienced an unexpected and upsetting event in her life. She came to the community, to a place she felt safe, surrounded by friends and she shared her news.
It wasn’t health and beauty news, it was real, personal news and she found comfort and support amongst online friends.
How could we ever assume that someone in their darkest moments, considering something terrible, wouldn’t come to a place they regularly spent time and felt safe? We couldn’t assume that. That’s why every community we run has a suicide policy, regardless of their membership or topics.
Writing a suicide policy
There are several factors to consider, and you must consider them properly:
- Could there be minors using the community?
- Do you have means of contacting community members?
- Do you have real names and locations for community members?
- You will need a templated (but customisable) message containing links to supportive organisations such as the Samaritans and any specifically relevant organisations (such as a professional benevolent society with counsellors available).
- Do you have functions within your community that could be used to post images or videos of an attempted suicide? It is incredibly rare, but it happens.
- Do you have an in-house legal team to discuss this with?
- Is there a reporting function for other members to flag content they’re concerned about? Do members know this is not just for spam or offensiveness?
It’s a tragic subject, but as community managers we have a responsibility to try and keep our members as safe as possible.
Having a plan in place won’t cause any problems if it’s never needed, but not having a plan in place could leave a community manager with a scenario that haunts them for a very long time.