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Crisis intervention program leverages social media to reduce suicide risk

Study by OHSU, Lines for Life documents innovative intervention for youth through Safe Social Spaces program
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Alan Teo, M.D., sits at a table with a computer, hands together. He has short black hair and a blue suit, sitting in a conference room with windows open. Trees are in view.
Alan Teo, M.D.., M.S., and co-authors documented more than 150 instances of self-harm avoided over the past five years through an innovative program that leverages social media to reduce suicide risk among young people. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

An Oregon-based program that monitors social media use may have helped deter more than 150 youth suicide attempts in the five years it’s operated, reports a new study published online today in the journal Psychiatric Services.

Staff with Lines for Life, a nonprofit that operates mental health crisis support services, and researchers at Oregon Health & Science University collaborated to closely document interventions by the Safe Social Spaces program, launched in 2019 by Lines for Life.

The study’s senior author said it’s an example of meeting people where they are.

“Community engagement is critical,” said Alan Teo, M.D., M.S., associate professor of psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine. “Health care systems often wait for patients to come to the clinic or hospital, but if you just wait for patients to come to you, there are a lot of people in need who will be missed.”

Whatever its role in driving the mental health crisis affecting young people, the new study suggests, social media can be used as a unique tool in detecting concerning messages for those paying attention.

In this case, trained staff with the Safe Social Spaces intervention program contacted more than 3,000 young people who openly shared their experience with emotional problems on social media. The program estimates that, through supportive dialogue, 163 instances of self-harm, which can include suicide attempts, have been avoided so far.

Teo acknowledged the irony of using social media to achieve a positive mental health outcome.

“Experiences on social media can be stressful, but what I love about this program is that it illustrates a way to use forums online for a good purpose,” Teo said. “It’s obviously not as black and white as saying social media is evil or screen time is all bad. We know that youth are spending time there and, as with all technologies, the important thing is how you use it.”

In addition to Teo, co-authors on the study included Laura Levy, a graduating M.D.-M.P.H. student in the OHSU School of Medicine and the OHSU-Portland State University School of Public Health, and Angela Nielsen of Lines for Life.

Teo serves as a staff psychiatrist in the VA Portland Health Care System and his research is supported by the Veterans Health Administration Office of Research and Development, Health Systems Research.

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