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Air Force psychologist considers social media’s role in suicide prevention

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AFNS) -- Social media connects us to more people than ever before, but these contacts may not be the type that help build resiliency. Strong interpersonal connections play a critical role in suicide prevention. Used correctly, social media can be an important tool in the suicide prevention toolbox for commanders, friends, and family.

When people associate social media with suicide, it is often in a negative way. We think of cyber-bullying or lonely teenagers with thousands of virtual friends but none in real life. Those examples do exist and are a serious concern, says Lt. Col. Alicia Matteson, chief of Air Force suicide prevention programs. However, she says that social media can also play a valuable role in suicide prevention efforts, especially to help officers know the Airmen under their command.

“I recently served as a squadron commander, and I sometimes heard from the leaders in my organization that they were too busy to be connected to their Airmen,” said Matteson. “It’s true, we are very busy, but it is critical to take the time to know your Airmen, and what’s going on in their lives, to ask the questions.”

Keeping a finger on the emotional pulse of Airmen is extremely important for leaders to gauge the emotional well-being of their subordinates, and know when they may need additional assistance.

“Social media can be an effective tool to connect leaders to their Airmen, including civilians in the total force,” said Matteson. “It can be texting groups, Facebook groups, or something else. It’s a good way to get information out quickly, but it’s also a means to look at what people are saying and posting.”

Social media documents major life events, like the death of a loved one or a divorce that can be triggers for suicidal behavior. Sudden changes in online behavior, negative posts that are out of character, or even explicit contemplation of suicide, can all be warning signs.

“Sometimes, social media is where you will see the first sign that something is going wrong,” said Matteson. “If their posts, or the tone of their posts change, if they are saying things that are uncharacteristic of them, or things like ‘I’m done, I’m fed up, I hate my life,’ it can be a sign that a leader needs to engage immediately.”

Although social media can be an effective window into Airmen’s inner thoughts, it is not necessarily the best tool to respond, says Matteson. An in-person interaction, or over the phone if that connection is not possible, is more likely to make an impact. The first line of defense against suicide is human interaction, and connecting with something bigger then yourself. Leaders can make their Airmen feel like valued members of the unit, and help build resiliency.

Preventing suicide is the responsibility of every member of the Air Force community, from the highest-ranking military and civilian leadership, all the way to the new enrollees in basic training. Using every tool to build connections strengthens relationships within a unit, and helps build a sense of community that is a valuable bulwark against feelings of isolation, depression, and substance abuse, all of which are major risk factors for suicide.