Does Social Media Really Help a Cry-for-Help?

shatterrealm asked a question:

When Internet strangers rally together to assure a suicidal person that they are loved and precious, are we really helping? Or are we making things worse by arguing with their depression? Should we simply be referring them to professionals?

Hey dear friend, this is an excellent question that I can’t possibly hope to adequately cover, but I’ll offer a few thoughts on this to consider.

– On one hand, if you can save a life with words, do it. I think it’s absolutely a good idea to press in when someone expresses depression, anywhere, every time, all the time. It might really pull back someone from the edge, even for one more day.

I can’t really stop to evaluate the whole thing on whether it’s real or not, or if it’s really helping. That’s not for me to decide right then. If someone is drowning in a river headed towards a waterfall, I don’t ever want to think, “Am I enabling this person to not learn to swim?” I can think about that later. At this very second, I have to throw a lifeline, or I’ll jump in there myself.

– On the other hand, I’m less sure about how this will work for the long-term. It’s the old dilemma: “Give a person a fish for a day or teach them how to fish for life.”

In the short-term, rallying together online can certainly be helpful for a person who cries-for-help. I’ll be the first one there. But at some point, the online world becomes very limited in truly helping a depressed person. It doesn’t go deep enough, and in some cases, can actually be more harmful.

It’s easy to romanticize the instances where someone gets a million “likes,” but plenty of people cry for help online who go unanswered. What happens then? Does that person go through with their ultimatum? Does a post going viral equate to the person’s value? Do only “popular bloggers” and their friends (aka the social media elite) get likes and comments? And even when tons of people gather, what about the second time? Third time? Tenth time?

I’ve suffered from clinical depression for as long as I can remember, and I can tell you that I’m extremely thankful for social media and how fellow bloggers have rushed in with encouragement. I could never diminish that. At the same time, there’s also a lot of bad advice out there. Bloggers are not your counselors. Depression is so complex that each case needs a different array of therapy, medicine, face-to-face community, and sustainable purpose. So getting help through social media is only one tiny element in a long uphill battle. There’s absolutely no shame for each of us to eventually admit to a friend, “I’m not equipped to offer the help you need. I’ll drive you to the appointment, I’ll go with you to the group, I’ll research more, but I know I’m not enough to answer your every concern.”

There’s also the issue of slacktivism, in which people think they’re helping through social media by clicking “like” or changing a profile picture or drawing an “X” on their hands, but it actually makes us less likely to be helpful in real life (look up the actual study by the University of British Columbia). I know plenty of people who act like they care about mental illness on social media, but they treat their afflicted relatives with resentment. I know how hard this is, because both my uncle and my late grandmother suffered from schizophrenia and we lived in the same house, so I can’t entirely judge those situations. But my guess is that our quick-click culture of instant gratification makes it easier to care about faceless disembodied strangers and then presume that we’ve done our “good deed for the day,” like our quota has been capped, and then there’s no follow-through, both online and in real life with friends and neighbors. Statistically, social media doesn’t make us better in the trenches at ground-level. It turns many of us into shallow basement bloggers instead of rolling up our sleeves with people around us who are suffering within our ten foot radius. What we need is real intimacy for whole healing, and that’s always going to be harder than swiping on a screen.

Somehow, we need to reach out for both the short-term and long-term. It takes longer, it’s tougher, but it’s the only way to really save both a life and a soul. There’s an old story where a doctor kept getting patients with injured legs, and soon discovered all these injuries were related to the same pot-hole in the middle of the street. Of course, the doctor treated each of the individual patients, but he also set out to fix the original source of the problem.

There has to be a way that we can address both the crisis and the undercurrent of depression. It’s not easy. I wish I had a magical formula for the whole thing. One thing I know for sure is that even one person can truly make a difference in another person, no matter how small the gesture, and by God, we’re called to do everything we possibly can to help.


3 thoughts on “Does Social Media Really Help a Cry-for-Help?

  1. Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can. – wisely said by John Wesley.

    Thank you for your honesty and this valuable reminder on doing all we can to help someone JS. A coincidence how timely your post was? I think not.


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