Want to Hang Yourself? Twitter Says, “Go for It!”

About a month ago, we were alerted to a tweet by one of our clients of a man who threatened to kill himself.  While we were all fairly sure he was someone who tweeted something rashly and was not actually suicidal, I didn’t want to take the chance, sitting around while someone might be dying.  So I put in 3+ hours trying to track him down that afternoon.

I’m writing this today as I have just finished writing a letter of commendation to a couple people on behalf of Detective Burns of the Charleston (WV) Police Department who went above and beyond the call of duty.  I figured he deserved some praise on the ‘net in addition to written letters to his boss and the Mayor.

Additionally, I’m hoping that it will provide some information in case you find yourself in a similar situation as it turned out to be incredibly difficult for a lay person – especially one who did not know him – to track this person down.  Also, I hope it serves as a public shaming for twitter for their callousness in lack of response.

Backstory: The Suicide Threat

Without getting into details about the person, as I said, we received notification of the suicide threat on twitter.  Without getting into it, I was reasonably sure the person was on twitter.  I had a name that might or might not be correct (it was), and if the picture was of him, I could roughly guess his age.  That was it.

My first call was to the Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 figuring they had dealt with this sort of thing before.  They were of no help, which was really a bit scary.

Then I called my local (Wheeling, WV) police department.  Incredibly nice, but didn’t see anyone in their database with that name and couldn’t help.

So then I tried to track down a phone number to twitter, which is no easy task.  With enough digging, you can find an email address – help@twitter.com, to which I submitted an email.  After a couple bad phone numbers, I eventually found one that worked: 415-222-9670.  You won’t get anyone live, but you do have an option for law enforcement (#1), so I left a message as well.  Additionally, I mentioned them on my own twitter feed in the hope they might see that.

Twitter never responded and I doubt ever looked into.  I get they’re busy.  But this is potentially a matter of life and death.  I was crushed at work that day, but still took out 3 hours.  If there is any sort of protocol – which again, I doubt – they failed miserably.  That’s why I titled this post as such.  While suicide is in no way a joking manner, my hope is an inflammatory post may get them to rethink how they handle such requests in the future.  And for that matter, the Suicide Prevention folks, although that may be as simple as reaching out to facebook, twitter, MySpace, et al, to develop some procedures.

In the meantime, this person changed his display name, took the account private, then deleted it entirely.  I had written down the display name, so I had that, but I did not screen cap his followers / following, so I had no way to reach out to people that knew him and could check on him. This would be my #1 recommendation in the future to do that quickly and send out some quick check-ins with those folks. 

Finally, I called the Charleston WV police just as kind of a last effort.  It took me forever to get someone on the line no matter what phone # I tried – truly disheartening – but I did eventually get hooked up with a Detective Burns (sp?).  The detective is their internet crimes guy.  When I asked if he had to deal with really awful child porn type cases, he casually replied that he had some up on one of his screens right then.  I cannot imagine how awful of a job that is and sincerely thank Det.  Burns and everyone in law enforcement that deals with those evil people.

Through some well, detective work, Det. Burns finally tracked down the young man, then followed up with me letting me know everything was okay.  So for this, I salute you, Det. Burns.

What to Do If Someone You See Threatens Suicide on Twitter

I’m sure there isn’t a one-size fits all solution, but based on my experience, here’s what I’d do:

  1. Screenshot at least a page worth of:
  1. Their tweets (so you can see with whom they’ve interacted recently)
  2. Their followers
  3. Whom they are following
  • Call the police if you think you have a name and location.
  • Reach out to their contacts on twitter to see if they can check in on the person.
  • Hopefully one day there will be a useful way to contact twitter and the Suicide Prevention folks and enlist their help.

    Justin Seibert

    About The Author

    Justin Seibert is the President of Direct Online Marketing. Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vanderbilt University. He contributes a wide range of online business-oriented topics, including the subject of exporting. His contributions can be found on publications such as the Pittsburgh Business Times, Advertising Age, SES Magazine, and La Voz del interior. Justin and his family enjoy learning about new cultures during their travels.

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