On College Campuses, Suicide Intervention Via Anonymous App

Jul 13, 2015
Originally published on July 14, 2015 12:54 pm

We've heard a lot about how people get ugly online — abuse others and bully because they don't have to stand behind their words. But there's an upside to anonymity on the Internet, too: Good things can happen when you don't have to say your name.

On the app Yik Yak, for example, college students are asking for help when they're feeling desperate or even suicidal — and the anonymous crowds are responding with kindness.

Samantha Braver, a rising sophomore at the College of William & Mary, describes herself as a frequent user of Yik Yak. The app allows you to post things anonymously. People physically nearby, within a 5-mile radius, can view and respond.

Braver was scrolling through her feed about an hour before NPR's interview, and she stumbled across a post that concerned her.

She sent a screen shot: "I want to turn my emotions off. There's very little left for me to be happy about and it's only a matter of time before those things fade too."

Braver's school, based in Williamsburg, Va., has had three student deaths on campus in the last year, including two confirmed suicides. The fact that students can and do hurt themselves is not a joke.

In response to this specific Yak, as they're called, others urged the person to get help. One post said: "I had a friend kill himself a few years ago and I would have gladly heard his s*** and a lot worse if it would have made the difference."

The person seemed unmoved. Braver chimed in too: "You are loved. Please don't do this."

Across college campuses, students and counselors say that students are posting their suicidal thoughts. Some are subtle, not explicitly about feelings. Emily Reiling, a student at Villanova, outside Philadelphia, recalls when someone simply posted: "If I were to put up my laptop for free or for sale, would anyone buy it?"

Yik Yak users started responding yes, they'd buy or take it.

Then the turning point came. "Somebody asked where they could pick up this free stuff," Reiling recalls. "The student said, 'at the hospital.' So then people were concerned. Why would she or he be at a hospital?"

The comments on the thread changed. Yakers down-voted previous responses about freebies. With five down votes, a post gets automatically deleted. People offered an ear to listen, a hug, free cookies.

And even after weeks went by, there was follow-up. Reiling reads the thread, in which one person recently posted, "I hope summer is really good to you" and the original poster responds, "You guys are sweet, thank you."

In March, a student at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia took his own life. Jessica Reingold, who just graduated, recalls a very explicit Yik Yak post in the days after, saying something like: I'm super lonely; I think I'm going to kill myself.

People immediately posted supportive words and the number to a suicide hotline. Reingold went a step further. "I said if you need anyone to talk to, I'll meet up with you."

She didn't give her contact information and say "call me." And the person in trouble didn't reply. But if he or she did, Reingold says, "I would have posted a time and then like a meetup place somewhere on campus. And that's how people usually would meet up — to do other things."

By "other things," she means make out. Yik Yak is famous and infamous on college campuses for enabling casual hookups, gossip and rumors. The platform auto-searches for threatening words in posts and moderates certain Yaks reported.

Still, it remains a place where catty kids, rival sports teams and bullies go to talk trash. Barrages of racist and sexist comments have prompted a handful of campuses to ban the app.

Suicide Is Unique

Yik Yak has become an unlikely safe space for people with suicidal thoughts — a place where, students say, responses are consistently helpful, not mean. Reingold says that could be because the conversation offline is consistent, "because we've been educated to never assume that they're joking; you always take them seriously."

That's in clear contrast to another serious issue: rape and sexual assault.

Braver says when people post that they're victims, they get Yaks back like, "What was the person wearing or how do we know this is true, there's no proof. This person just wants attention."

But there is another important difference. Sexual assault is typically something that's already happened. Suicide is a crisis on the horizon, something that can still be prevented. "For suicide there's more of an immediacy to the comments, and for rape it's definitely less of a 'this has to be taken care of right now,' " Braver says.

Fairly Or Really Depressed?

Mental health counselor Nancy Stockton at Indiana University says it's great that students have a new place to find support. But if someone says he's swallowed a half-bottle of pills, Yik Yak is not the solution.

"If they were talking with a suicide hotline that has a way of knowing who's called, 911 emergency personnel could be dispatched immediately," Stockton says.

There's a big difference between people who are kind of depressed, and people seriously on the brink. Counselors hope Yik Yak users will encourage the latter group to get real help.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Today - anonymity online, bullying and suicide prevention. Yik Yak, an app where people post comments anonymously, is well-known as a place for gossip and vicious insults. That happens in other spaces, too, where users don't use their real names. Malicious social media posts have been linked to a number of teen suicides in the past few years. But some users argue anonymous space can also be good. It can be a place to post a cry for help. Here's NPR's Aarti Shahani.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Samantha Braver is a rising sophomore at the College of William and Mary. She uses Yik Yak, which allows you to post things anonymously. She was just scrolling through her feed, like, 45 minutes before we talked and she came across a post that concerned her.

SAMANTHA BRAVER: Yeah, that's the screenshots that I sent you.

SHAHANI: All she knows about the person posting is that he or she is physically nearby, within a five-mile radius.

BRAVER: Someone wrote something like, I want to turn off all my emotions. I can't handle this anymore.

SHAHANI: Braver's school, based in Williamsburg, Va., has had three student deaths on campus in the last year - two confirmed suicides. The fact that students can and do hurt themselves is not a joke. In response to the specific Yak as they're called...

BRAVER: Someone commented you need to reach out for help and another person wrote we care about you even if others don't feel like that. I wrote you're loved. Please don't do this.

SHAHANI: Across college campuses, students and counselors say, students are posting their suicidal thoughts. Some are subtle - not explicitly about feelings. Emily Reiling, a student at Villanova - just outside of Philadelphia, -reads one like that.

EMILY REILING: They posted if I were to put up my laptop for free or for sale, would anyone buy it?

SHAHANI: Yakkers started responding, yeah, I'd buy or take it from you.

REILING: Somebody asked where they could pick up this free stuff. And the student said at the Bryn Mawr Hospital, so then people were concerned, why would he or she be at a hospital?

SHAHANI: The thread changed. Yakkers downvoted previous responses about freebies. With five downvotes a post gets automatically deleted. People offered an ear to listen, a hug, free cookies, and even after weeks went by, there was follow-up.

REILING: Somebody said, I hope summer is really good to you and then the original poster said, you guys are sweet. Thank you.

SHAHANI: In March, a student at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia took his own life. Jessica Reingold, who just graduated, recalls a very explicit Yik Yak post in the days after, saying something like I'm super lonely. I think I'm going to kill myself. People immediately posted supportive words and the number to a suicide hotline. Reingold went a step further.

JESSICA REINGOLD: I said, and if you need anyone to talk to, I'll meet up with you.

SHAHANI: She didn't give her contact information and say, hey, call me.

REINGOLD: Oh, my gosh, no, no, no.

SHAHANI: And the person in trouble didn't reply. But if he or she did...

REINGOLD: I would've posted a time and then, like, a meet-up place somewhere on campus. And that's how people usually would meet up to do other things.

SHAHANI: By other things she means make out. Yik Yak is famous and infamous on college campuses for enabling casual hookups, gossip, rumors. Barrages of racist and sexist comments have prompted a handful of campuses to ban the app. But Reingold says, the Yik Yak comments about suicide are consistently helpful, not mean or dumb. That could be because the conversations offline are consistent, too.

REINGOLD: Because we've been educated to never assume that they're joking. You always take them seriously.

SHAHANI: Mental health counselor Nancy Stockton at the University of Indiana says it's great that students have a new place to find support. But if someone says they've swallowed a half-bottle of pills, Yik Yak is not the solution. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly refer to the University of Indiana. The school is named Indiana University.]

NANCY STOCKTON: If they were talking with the suicide hotline that has a way of knowing who's called, 9-1-1 emergency personnel could be dispatched immediately.

SHAHANI: There's a big difference between people who are kind of depressed and people seriously on the brink. Counselors hope Yik Yak users will encourage the latter group to get real help. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.