Can Twitter Help Prevent Suicides?

Jun 12, 2010

Is 140 characters enough to talk a person out of depression and death? Global Voices blogger, Scilla Alecci, finds out what young Japanese think of this “life-saving” media tool.



The National Police Agency recently released the results of its annual survey on suicide in Japan. According to the statistics [ja, pdf], 32,845 people committed suicide last year and dramatic is the increase in number of victims in their 20s and 30s; the main reasons [ja] are said to be 1) health problems, 2) economic and social problems, and 3) family problems.

Sadly known as one of the developed countries with the highest per capita number of suicides [en], Japan has been trying for years to confront the problem, by working to tackle it at all levels of society. The government and other groups constantly launch campaigns to raise awareness and invite people to turn to assistance centers whenever they feel depressed or convinced that the only way to solve their, or often their loved ones’, problems is to commit suicide.

Deciding to talk to somebody, reflecting and defining the causes of their desperation, is a very hard step that few people in a state of depression are believed to be able to make. But, although it cannot represent a definitive solution, some believe that the Internet might be a tool to help, especially among the tech-savvy, younger generations.

To this regard, Twitter has been recently a subject of debate of those who see in its 140 character format a potential for contact with those who seek help but prefer to remain anonymous and cannot express their suffering in long and well articulated phrases.

Yamabe says that the news that actress Demi Moore reportedly prevented a woman from committing suicide by tweeting a 16-word-long comment recently made her reflect on the question.


Suicide Prevention mirror in Sapporo by MJTR

Suicide Prevention mirror, in Sapporo.

Photo credit: MJTR



Many have tried to give insight into such a complex issue, trying to analyze the sociological implications that the act of suicide has in Japan, where traditionally it used to be considered as a brave act at times. Not only in the samurai culture but also in the rural one, where often the older people decided to “retire” themselves in the mountains instead of being a burden to their families.

But the fact that the number of victims is not likely to decrease, can only mean that the causes are difficult to identify, and some bloggers, like Ayasan, are sceptical about the power of Twitter and the Internet in general.


“There are many ways to deal with each other in real time, such as using Twitter or a chat room, where you don't know who the other one is nor do they know who you are. Of course it may be technically possible to identify the individual behind the PC but in real time, it's almost impossible. Which is why in such circumstances, I think it's very dangerous that someone's life can be handled with a tool that allows such free interchange. […]

I wrote in a past article that ‘words have the power to kill a person’. The choice of words, the usage of the characters and the nuance of the whole sentence is very important. The person who teeters on that fine dividing line between life and the ‘other’ side is very sensitive and reacts to each phrase, making go/no-go decisions very quickly. Can one say for sure that the person, with whom one is interacting through a PC, is really behaving with good faith?

I would say congratulations to those who actually believe that with the kind of bonds you can build through the Internet, the feeling of a person who is seriously thinking ‘I feel so lonely that I want to die’ can really be distracted. Or perhaps they're lacking in imagination. Yes, communicating via Internet with an unknown person may provide temporary relief but I do not think it can provide a long-lasting insight or solution.” (translation)


If preventive measures such as barriers and blue light LEDs on railway station platforms (jumping off the train is a favoured method of “self ending”) haven't proven effective in suicide prevention, some consider that, in the era of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, the social network services may be a new way to help solve the problem. Ikeda Hayato believes in the power of social media:


“With the ‘old’ style Web, the voice of those who suffer might have gone ignored but with the current web, where social graphs (human relations, data relations) are structured and available, raising your voice can become a connection with someone.

Mr. Suzuki of Wonder Shake (@Doubles9124), sent me these words via Skype: ‘Social media represent the space where it is possible to generate a decision making path to change a person's life’. If it's possible to prevent suicides, that would be the ultimate use of a decision making path to change a person's life.

What I found really shocking was that the number of suicides among people in their 20s and 30s is increasing. Of course it's impossible to solve every individual problem with technology but today's Web has the power to connect and it would be a wonderful thing if, by using the social Web, the life of even only one more person could change and be saved.” (translation)