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Teenager’s death provides an eye-opening look into social media

Most of the time, I scroll through my social media feeds lazily. One person is getting a hair appointment. Another is posting photos of her cute kids. But every now and then, I see a sad post or a depressing meme, and I wonder “What’s going on with her.”

So when I got an alert yesterday morning that a student at a local high school had committed suicide at the school, I was shaken. It’s not that I knew him — I didn’t. And it wasn’t just because he was only 18 years old and just nine days away from graduating high school. It wasn’t even because as a young black kid, I see my own kids in him, even if just a little bit.

More: Suicide contagion may be impacting your teen without you even realizing it

It was mostly because he tweeted it.

I was already reeling from the in-depth piece I read last week about Madison Holleran, the Penn State student who committed suicide last year. Similar to Wheeler, Holleran shared her life via social media. But unlike Wheeler, Holleran’s posts tended to paint a portrait of happy student. Scrolling through Wheeler’s timeline, I can sense his desperation and sadness in Tweets sent the day of – and days before – his death.

While I’ve never seen anyone on my timeline specifically allude to harming themselves, how many times have I looked the other way when I see post after post, meme after meme, about how hard someone’s life is? When is a Tweet or an Instragram post or a Facebook post just a vent? And when should we take it seriously?

More: My son’s classmate committed suicide, and this is how we handled it

According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, you should report a suicide threat any time they exhibit any of these warning signs.

  • Writing about wanting to die or to kill oneself.
  • Writing about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Writing about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
  • Writing about being a burden to others.
  • Writing about seeking revenge.

If you know of a direct threat, you can contact the suicide hotline or local law enforcement. But if you see a threat online, the major social media sites even have ways that you can anonymously report someone you think may be thinking of harming him or herself. This includes Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. All reports can be made anonymously.

More: #Lifeunfiltered moments show social media posts aren’t always reality

As for me, if you post a depressing meme, or I see a questionable Tweet or Facebook post, don’t be surprised if I reach out to you, if I send you a note, just to see if you’re OK. Because while it may be embarrassing for me to find out that something I thought was a suicide threat was a joke, I’d rather risk embarrassing myself than losing a friend.

If you suspect someone might be considering suicide, or you have struggled with those thoughts yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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