Behind the Scenes of Reddit’s Suicide Watch

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There are hotlines and emergency therapists available for someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts. But picking up a phone and talking to someone is an action many people — especially younger people — are becoming less familiar with in our everyday lives. Would someone in such a heightened emotional state really think to do so?

Recently, the BBC explored an innovative way of addressing this problem, as well as the emotional consequences for the volunteers involved. Writer Felicity Morse interviewed the moderator of Reddit’s Suicide Watch, which follows a simple formula: On the subreddit, posters write about their situation — if they’re feeling suicidal, what has pushed them to this state, etc. — and other Redditors reply to them. That’s it.

“My first thought on discovering the sub was, ‘Oh my god, I’ve gotta get this shut down’ because Reddit is the worst place in the world to do suicide intervention,” the moderator, identified only as Laura, told the BBC. “Then I looked into the background of the sub and discovered it had come about because no matter how much we tried to send people elsewhere or discourage people from talking about their thoughts of suicide, it just kept happening.”

Laura is a Canadian who, along with a team of other volunteers, has helped man Suicide Watch for five years (the subreddit has been around for six); she also works with a suicide hotline, which means she understands the intricacies of suicide prevention. But while Reddit has a reputation for going bonkers on some threads, Suicide Watch has been refreshingly civil and supportive, and a lens into how social media can be utilized as a community tool for good.

There are some ground rules. Volunteers like Laura are constantly watching the subreddit, deleting comments and banning trolls that are deemed threatening or violate the thread’s underlying codes: no abusive or “tough love” language, no suggestions for committing suicide, and no “it gets better” type of empty promises.

But the site also poses some potential problems. Suicide Watch lacks that one thing that all other suicide hotlines have, which is backup emergency services in case a person’s threats to commit suicide turn real. All users are anonymous, which of course means you can’t trace where a person is or who they are, which makes having 911 on call impossible. But Laura argues that there are perks to the anonymity, too. It allows people to be more open on Suicide Watch than they might otherwise be, able to express their feelings without risk of being found out or stigmatized. 

It’s not easy for Laura and her fellow volunteers, who spend a few hours per day responding to Redditors and kicking trolls out. They’ve created a support group for themselves, in fact. But in the end, Laura and her team know that all they can really do is hope their words help. “You get into an intense rapport with people very quickly, then you hang up and never heard from them again,” she says. “You have to be OK with that. The only way I know to stay sane is to be very rigorously disciplined and not be emotionally invested in anything outside your control. There are always people outside your reach.”