Here's what I wish people knew about reporting their friends on social media.
In the winter of 2013, I found myself spending a month on a leaky air mattress. I was staying at the home of my ex-fiancé’s Facebook friend, in Iowa. She’d generously welcomed me after my ex kicked me out of our shared Tennessee apartment.
I was three months pregnant and battling suicidal ideation every day. When my fiancé told me to go back to Minnesota and began spending all of his time trolling online for dates, my prenatal depression kicked into high gear. I was pregnant, recently dumped, filled with guilt, and terrified of being a bad mother. I was afraid my depression would prevent me from bonding with my child, and I was in desperate need of help. No matter how much people told me to move on, I couldn’t understand how to actually do it.
In those days, I still had a Facebook account, which constantly reminded me of the breakup. Everything online did, but Facebook was particularly good at it. Plus my Facebook posts were pretty dang depressing. I like to think I was careful about what I posted. I knew I shouldn’t tell people how much I wanted to die. I knew I shouldn’t share how often I went for walks in the middle of the night with a knife in my pocket.
One day I posted a status I don’t remember posting: “Today I’m thinking a lot about taking a walk and disappearing for good.”
I was alone when there was a loud knock at the door. Startled, I opened the door to see a police officer.
“Are you Shannon Ashley?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered, the blood draining from my face. I didn’t understand what he wanted.
“One of your friends was concerned about some things you posted on Facebook,” he said. “Can I come in and talk?”
The officer sat down and asked me some questions about what was going on and how I was feeling. As I realized what was happening, I felt my face burn. Someone had reported my post to Facebook, which advised them to contact my local authorities.
I knew if I answered too honestly, I would have to go to the hospital. For a lot of folks battling suicidal ideation, going to the hospital is an unknown that seems even scarier than our darkest thoughts. We will do everything we can to avoid it.
So I was careful to tell the police officer just enough to get him to leave me alone. I’m not sure why we don’t talk more about this flaw in the system: So many of our protocols surrounding depression or suicide checks assume the person who needs help will tell the truth.
But a lot of us won’t.
The officer didn’t stay long, and my main concern was making sure he left before anyone else returned home. It was bad enough to feel so miserable; the last thing I wanted was to explain myself to somebody else.
I still don’t know who reported my post and called the police. I do know Facebook didn’t deem the post “against community guidelines” because it’s still visible six years later on my now-unused account.
“If someone you know is in danger, please contact local emergency services for help immediately,” Facebook advises on its help page. “After you’ve called emergency services, connect with your friend or call someone who can. Showing that you care matters. Make sure they know that you’re there for them, and that they aren’t alone.”
I’m glad to see Facebook recommends that the concerned user reach out to their friend, but I have mixed feelings about the entire policy. In my case, the person who reported my post and called the cops never revealed themselves or reached out to offer personal support.
People don’t know how to react to a pregnant woman who isn’t glowing with joy or delightfully sharing photos of baby showers and nursery makeovers. And they definitely don’t know how to deal with one in the deep throes of prenatal depression. Some friends did send baby gifts, but they were hard to look at — more reminders of what I didn’t have, and the massive responsibility that was about to come screaming into my unprepared arms.
Spending the month of December in Iowa gave me physical distance from my daughter’s dad, but emotionally I was still wrapped up in our ridiculous soap opera. My ex was a master manipulator who made things worse by leaving bread crumbs for my lovesick and hungry heart. I wanted a reconciliation, and he repeatedly pushed me away and drew me back in. It didn’t matter how much everybody else told me it was over. He kept telling me our story wasn’t done.
I wanted fate to intervene and either give me a miscarriage or take my life.
A couple of days before my fiancé ended our relationship, I saw my obstetrician, who was treating me for severe anxiety and prenatal depression. He switched up my anti-anxiety meds in hopes of greater relief. He also told me that my feelings were completely natural given the whirlwind of changes in my life, but I still felt strangely broken.
I was in love with a man who was no good for me, yet I believed I wasn’t good enough for him.
Still, my OB-GYN was right — a lot had changed over the past year. I’d begun a relationship with a man I’d met online and spontaneously quit my job of five years to live with him in Tennessee. I didn’t have any friends in the area and couldn’t drive, so if I wasn’t working, I was with him or cooped up alone at home. This man — who had gotten me pregnant and refused to consider my feelings — was pretty much my everything.
When he finally broke up with me, I’m not sure why I was so shocked. On some level, I knew it was coming. But I think I internalized all his behavior as somehow my fault. Like he would have been faithful and kind if I had simply been better.
I was in love with a man who was no good for me, yet I believed I wasn’t good enough for him.
Throughout my prenatal depression, people repeatedly told me, “You’re not alone” (a vague platitude) or that I needed “tough love” because I was about to become a mother and my child needed to come first.
Supporting a person with depression isn’t easy or comfortable. Calling the police or reporting a loved one on Facebook might just mean the person you’re concerned about learns to be more careful about telling the truth.
In my experience, a lot of people don’t know what a depressed person actually needs. So they ease their conscience by simply reporting it, without following up on any of the messy human stuff.
That’s the responsible thing to do, right? Just let the cops do a suicide check. No need to talk about their feelings.
The problem, however, is that many (if not most) people who make online cries for help are doing so because they don’t have the support they need in real life. Plenty of folks who suffer from severe depression and suicidal ideation report that their symptoms increase when they feel isolated or like they’re a burden to others. Or when they feel as though no one will simply give them a bit of time and real-world friendship.
My story, at least, has a happy ending: I survived not only to see better days, but also to find joy in my life as a single mom. I will never forget the depth of my depression that winter. Looking back, it feels like some sort of miracle that I made it to the other side of my pain. It took a couple of years of hard work, but I finally learned how to move on and pull myself away from the drama with my daughter’s dad.
My experience taught me a lot about what people need when they’re going through a depressive episode. There aren’t any simple solutions for the best way to react to alarming, concerning content on social media. At the bare minimum, you can report the post and contact the local authorities, but you should keep in mind that these are very temporary solutions. And even suicidal people lie.
A person might be more likely to believe they aren’t alone when you are willing to make the time for them off-line.
There are a lot of good resources out there, like this one, on the do’s and don’ts of supporting a friend with depression and what to do if you see something alarming on social media. If you do reach out, it’s important to know what you can realistically offer them, and what boundaries to set to keep yourself safe.
If you genuinely care about another person’s well-being, I encourage you to try connecting with them on a human level — instead of simply reporting them. Then, see what you can do to get that person connected to a more long-term source of mental health support. A person might be more likely to believe they aren’t alone when you are willing to make the time for them off-line.
It also made me strong. While it’s horrible that anyone should have to navigate prenatal and postpartum depression without a strong support system, I’m living proof that hope still exists. I’m proof that even our most awful and harrowing experiences can be used for good. As painful as my past was, it made me a better mom. I am much more conscientious about building and maintaining a healthy relationship with my daughter because of what I went through while pregnant with her.
“I want to believe that I’m not wrong. I want to believe that life isn’t full of darkness. Even if storms come to pass, the sun will shine again. No matter how painful and hard the rain may beat down on me.” — Natsuki Takaya, Fruits Basket
If you are struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please do not hesitate to contact the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1–800–273-TALK (8255). This is a free, 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources. For more information, call or visit www.suicidepreventionhotline.org.