Investigating A ‘Tweet Suicide’: Real Life Story of Commuinty & Cops Helping To Save A Life #MentalHealth

Responding in a timely way to suicidal social media posts can save lives. Are the proper investments and training in place in 2015? An involved cop wants to further the dialogue!
Responding in a timely way to suicidal social media posts can save lives. Are the proper investments and training in place in 2015? An involved cop wants to further the dialogue!
The balance between privacy and safety is often a challenge when talking about mental health issues. Social media adds another layer of complication for privacy advocates. Bottom line for Constable Scott Mills is that human resources, funding and training need to be invested in profession suicide intervention and prevention using social media tools and the dialogue needs to occur. Thanks Andrew for agreeing to let me do this blog post!
The balance between privacy and safety is often a challenge when talking about mental health issues. Social media adds another layer of complication for privacy advocates. Bottom line for Constable Scott Mills is that human resources, funding and training need to be invested in profession suicide intervention and prevention using social media tools and the dialogue needs to occur. Thanks Andrew for agreeing to let me do this blog post!

This post will describe the community and Toronto Police response to a cry for help in social media, in particular on twitter. It is being written because ‘we’, the community and the police, as well as other stakeholders like paramedics and the health system, social services and the education system need to talk about it to ensure best practices moving forward. The permission to write these facts comes from a man named Andrew Parker himself. The permission was obtained on twitter in a public forum on the tweet embedded below on Monday March 23, 2015. The ‘incident’ occurred on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2015.

The tipping point for me was a conversation that I had today with the Toronto Police Operations Centre police officers staff about the need for full documentation and integrated action on situations like this, as well as the fact that I noticed our Neighbourhood Officers in 51 Division who use twitter were actually tweeting with Andrew and good relations were happening! Isn’t this so much better that getting in a violent confrontation between a person in crisis and the police???

For background, I am the Toronto Police Service Social Media Officer working in Corporate Communications in downtown Toronto.I have been a police officer for 26 years, half of my career with the Peel Regional Police, and half with the Toronto Police Service. My job is to use Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram and Google Plus and Pinterest for the success and safety of our community. The Toronto Police Service have a decentralized social media communications strategy which I am very proud of. We are evolving further and further with the use of social media both for communications and for investigations.

In the past, a call for a suicide would be treated with the utmost of confidentiality, as it should be. With the evolution of social media, I have been involved in numerous incidents of social media posts from people reaching out asking for help with their mental health, sometimes going as far as threatening suicide. These incidents are often brought to my attention by concerned friends, family or complete strangers who see the posts in social media, are concerned and wish to get the person posting the messages the professional help that they require.

I have long advocated that there is a need for a Mobile Crisis Intervention Team presence in social media — Nurse/Police Teams that are specially trained to deal with mental health calls for service in the least obtrusive way possible. In fact, I have been involved in a number of interventions as a cop informally working collaboratively with a nurse in social media. Some specific details of those interventions can be referenced on the website, which I operate, called RealTimeCrisis.org.

I strongly believe that we can effectively reduce the need to dispatch the police or ambulance to deal with a mental health issue by maintaining a presence on social media that is monitored and staffed by nurse, social workers and cops. Nine times out of ten the people reaching out simply want a professional to talk with, and dispatching police and/or ambulance, especially police, to their home or work or where they happen to be perpetuates stigma of mental health issues and sometimes results in unnecessary violent confrontations with police officers. In addition, such things as social media suicide hoaxes could be identified quickly and efficiently without wasting precious law enforcement resources, often in multiple jurisdictions around the world

I want to demonstrate with this post a few things in particular:

1. There is a tremendous public outpouring of support and willingness to help for people posting cries for help in social media

2. What was once a very private matter of threaten suicide becomes very public when the cry for help is posted on social media

3. Many people do not know what to do when they see a suicidal post on social media – friends, family, colleagues and responding police and ambulance

4. The police are not necessarily needed to be in the vast majority of cases. The exception is where an exigent circumstances IP address trace needs to occur with the social media service provider to physically locate the person needing help. This is the case about 10% of the time (unofficial)

5. The issue of legal liability and who does what and where is huge and needs to be sorted out

6. Community partnerships in social media between police, nurses, social services and the education sector needs to occur in social media for maximum effectiveness of a social media intervention

6. In this case a very positive relationship occurred between the person posting a suicide threat and the police. I believe that this can happen in a number of cases, in fact the vast majority of cases, which will tremendously help improve the reputation of the police as being negative in our response to people experiencing mental health issues.

7. In the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence And Trauma’s 2014 Mindset Guide – Reporting On Mental Health,  there are great resources about how to talk about suicide in public, but there is very little touching on the phenomenon of suicidal social media posts.

8. In the Independent Review of Lethal Use of Force by Toronto Police Service by Retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iaboucci, there is no mention of social media interventions. Perhaps this is something that can be looked into, and resources allocated in a multi disciplinary fashion to improve service delivery for those people using social media to post mental health issues.

 

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Here is the case example of Andrew as discussed at the top of this post.

I was off duty at the time, around the supper hour on St Patrick’s Day, 2015 looking after my 2yr old son. I saw a tweet and a facebook post come to me on my smart phone from JC Lam, a Toronto teacher with whom I am friends. She alerted me to the twitter account of Andrew posting about threatenting suicide.

 

I also received a message from JC on instant messaging on Facebook

 

The complainant engaged with the Andrew encouraging him not to commit suicide

Other community members reached out to the complainant, who assured them that the police were on it (due to good relations complainant had with Toronto Police social media police officers)

Andrew finally tweeted that he was getting help and the complainant re-tweeted it as did hundreds of others, and a lot of dialogue followed in twitter in public view:

I followed our procedure and captured the tweet, immediately sending it to the Toronto Police Service Communications Supervisor and following up my e-mail to them with a phone call. They sent it to the Toronto Police Service Operations Centre who worked on this from an investigative point of view. It is my understanding that some records checks on Andrew’s name and possibly a call from a third party giving a possible address resulted in a well being check being done that was unsuccessful in locating Andrew.

Link to Instagram led to this

Bear hugs (gonna miss these guys)

A photo posted by Andrew Parker (@andyblargh) on

 

Also there was a link to a blog that appeared to be written by Andrew

During this time, a Toronto Star reporter Corey Mintz tweeted that if anyone saw Andrew to do something to help him. Corey Mintz tagged the Canadian News And Government Head for Twitter Canada, Steve Ladurantaye on the tweet as well as the @TorontoPolice twitter account (me!).

Steve and I have had meetings in the past about Real Time Crisis and trying to make the concept bigger and better and for all of social media for all of the world. Steve took particular interest in this case because he was now tagged in a post by the Toronto Star reporter. This was the first time he was tagged in one of these incidents. My words to Steve were ‘Welcome to my world’, as I regularly get tagged on my individual professional accounts “GRAFFITIBMXCOP’ and on our official TORONTOPOLICE accounts.

As time went on  Andrew started tweeting again stating that he was going to get help, much to the relief of the twitter community. (see above tweet embedded under the complainant’s story)

The end of the story occurred for Toronto Police when Andrew presented himself to a Parking Enforcement Officer on the street in downtown Toronto a few hours after the initial tweets. A patrol officer was dispatched, eventually taking Andrew to hospital to get help.

 

So.. let’s recap…

There is a need for:

1. Efficient and timely flow of information between people calling in to 911 (potentially from around the world!) and the police in real life and on social media

2. Ideally, Andrew needs a nurse and medical help, not the police! So expansion of Nurse/Poice MCIT resources to social media and 24/7 is a noble goal for service delivery.

3. There needs to be a seamless way to report all of this action that is happening in public view and behind the scenes in private by police and response agencies so that all know that the person needing help is getting help, and the help is getting to the person in a timely manner.

4. Obviously privacy needs to be of utmost concern for the vast majority of these cases! (thanks Andrew for giving permission to write this blog to get the word out!)

 

So… let’s talk… My cell is 647-449-2801 and anyone who is willing to help achieve some of these goals! Together we can make a difference!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Girly_Geek

    Thank you for writing this. It is always a comfort to see real people offering tangible solutions to problems such as this one. You have my support, for whatever that’s worth!

  • GraffitiBMXCop

    Wow! Quite the feedback on this post to me privately and on social media. Mostly positive from the public, mostly negative from the police. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of people on the right track to success with this issue of ‘social media and suicide’, but WE have a long way to go to make things right. Let’s Talk! Cell 647-449-2801

  • NadiaFordham

    Up until Oct 30, 2014 I had no real incident when it came to my mental health and Toronto Police, and some of my tweets led me to meet Scott actually. But now that I have had an unfortunate incident involving 22 Division, I am not going to comment further. But I hope that changes that do happen won’t be a temporary thing. @nadia_fordham