Samaritans eyes Facebook's latest anti-suicide efforts

Image caption A new reporting system means help can be offered more quickly than before

Support charity Samaritans has said it wants to offer greater help to distressed people via Facebook.

The website has improved its system in the US to put suicidal users directly in touch with support workers.

Once flagged by worried friends, users can talk to a trained counsellor via the social network's chat feature.

A Samaritans spokeswoman said the charity was interested in offering the same help in the UK, but greater resources would be needed.

"This is the next stage," Nicola Peckett, head of communications, told the BBC. "We would love to be able to do live chat on Facebook."

"It is a goal for us. It's just that we don't have the technology or the resources to do it yet."

The charity worked with Facebook in March this year to set up a system under which concerned friends can notify Facebook about worrying messages in the same way they flag up spam or offensive links.

These reports are then escalated by Facebook to Samaritans which attempts to contact the person in question by email within 12 hours.

"Our partnership with Facebook is not a one-off," Ms Peckett said.

"We want to work with Facebook again to look and refine what we do with them."

Crisis representative

In the US, the social network has launched a new initiative in partnership with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Users who feel suicidal can talk live to a trained "crisis representative" by using the private instant messaging function within Facebook itself.

It is hoped that being able to talk in a familiar online environment will encourage vulnerable people to seek help.

A Lifeline spokesperson said: "Although the Lifeline on average handles 70,000 calls per month, we have heard from our Facebook fans and others that there are many people in crisis who don't feel comfortable picking up the phone.

"This new service provides a way for them to get the help they need in the way they want it."

Lifeline said it currently dealt with an estimated 50 people a day who expressed suicidal thoughts on Facebook.

Leading standards

Samaritans, which pioneered the world's first email-based suicide prevention service, said there were increasing numbers of people coming to its attention because of social network posts.

"We're definitely reaching more people as a result of it," Ms Peckett said. "It's about raising awareness when you're concerned about a friend."

Ms Peckett pointed out that because Samaritans relied on charity donations and the work of volunteers, it had limited resources.

"We would need to assess it and make sure we could cope with demand and deliver it to our standards - the leading standards in the world."

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