Websites become tool for stopping veteran suicides

Story highlights

  • Mental health professionals say Facebook is a safe place to air despondent thoughts
  • Social media can be used to save lives and keep alive the memory of those who are gone
  • Soldiers using Facebook to save their "battle buddies"
  • A new app for soldiers, veterans monitors social media posts
At 5:49 p.m. on a January day, Pvt. Jordan DuBois posted on his Facebook page: "I'm goin to kill myself this is my last post ... miss u all..."
One hour and 20 minutes later, DuBois' speeding truck slammed into a light pole and a bus bench in Colorado Springs.
Several people who saw the post in early 2012 tried to talk him out of doing anything rash. They failed. The Fort Carson soldier was dead.
But in recent months, Facebook has become an important tool in tackling an alarming number of military suicides. The social networking site has helped shed light on a serious problem plaguing service members and veterans. It has acted as friend and counselor to weary soldiers and played a key role in reducing the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress, depression and mental illness.
Social media have helped blur the lines between private and public. What used to be intensely personal affairs are now out there for the world to see. That's not always a good thing, as evidenced by the August posting of a man who police say shot and killed his wife in Miami and then uploaded the shocking image to Facebook.
But mental health professionals say Facebook, which is at once deeply personal and removed enough from actual human interaction that makes it a safe place to air despondent thoughts and inclinations, can be of use in saving lives and keeping alive the memory of those who are gone. Many younger service members have grown up in the age of the Internet and are used to sharing their inner selves on social media.
With more than a billion users worldwide, the social network acknowledges its power. Public Relations Manager Brandon Lepow says that power can be used to prevent deaths. The company lists suicide hot lines and has instructions on how to report suicidal content on its help page. It has also partnered with organizations on suicide prevention and now more specifically, on military suicide prevention.
"Facebook," says Lepow, "has a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to save lives and put people in touch with those who can help them best."
Ground level
"Sweat dries. Blood clots. Bones heal. Suck it up Buttercup." Words to live by from a drill sergeant.
It's the kind of stuff Daniel Caddy posted on a Facebook page he started last year. Awesome S**t My Drill Sergeant Said is a collection of expletive-laden military jokes Caddy and his buddies sent around after basic training. Its "likes" have exploded to more than 234,000 today.
The page was meant to be funny and tells visitors lacking a sense of humor to "execute an about face and be gone." But on an October night last year, it took on dark undertones.
Caddy, a National Guard staff sergeant who spent a year clearing mines in Afghanistan, was about to fall asleep at his San Francisco home when he received a disturbing message. It was from a fellow Guardsman who said a soldier friend was contemplating suicide. "I'm certain he's going to kill himself," the text message said. He sent Caddy a screen shot of his friend's Facebook post.
It sent shivers through Caddy, the kind of fluttery feeling you get when you know something terrible is about to happen. Immediately, he posted a plea for help on the drill sergeant Facebook page:
"TROOP IN TROUBLE: We just received a request for help from a troop that turned to us in desperation because it is the middle of the night and no one in the chain of command is picking up the phone and he sincerely believes his battle (buddy) is planning to take his own life tonight. I'm out of bed on full alert and am waking up our Admin staff as well as our Network. We need your help as this develops.
"If you are in or near Kingsport, TN or know a battle that is, email me ASAP at hmfic@asmdss.com. Please share this s**t so as I get more details we have a large reach able to respond and hopefully intercede. If we lose one, that is one too many. Not f*****g around here."
Within minutes, the page lit up with comments, support and offers to help find the suicidal soldier. "We can't afford to lose another one," said one post.
Caddy received several hundred e-mails within the first five minutes from schools, teachers, phone company representatives and hostage negotiators who responded to the crisis as though that soldier was their own son. Some people jumped in their cars and began driving toward Kingsport.
Volunteers hit the ground. The soldier's exact location was pinged through his cell phone.
The harrowing five-hour saga unfolded on Caddy's Facebook page, with 5,000 people glued to their screens. They refused to go to bed without knowing that the soldier in distress was OK.
In the end, Caddy was able to find the soldier's unit commanders, and they connected with him, alone in his apartment in a vast complex. He felt isolated and disconnected, like so many combat veterans feel. He had been drinking heavily. But he was alive.
In his mind, Caddy heard a collective exhale. "We were able to achieve a miracle via social media," he says.
After that, Caddy learned of more cases of potential soldier suicides on Facebook. He realized the power of a medium that instantly allowed combat veterans to connect with each other. He also realized that he needed to reach soldiers long before they came to the point of wanting to end it all. Otherwise, it was like an emergency responder using a defibrillator to revive a heart attack patient but then never checking on the heart condition that caused it.
He launched Battle in Distress, a crisis response team that makes immediate contact with soldiers going through financial difficulties, marital friction, depression and other problems. They communicate resources that are available to soldiers in crisis on social media platforms and connect them with peers in their own communities.
"It's about saying, 'Hey, you got a lot going on, brother. Here are people who can help you,' " Caddy says.
Between January and April of this year, Battle in Distress intervened in 250 cases; 67 were suicidal soldiers.
But just one life saved means success for Caddy.
"Facebook has a huge potential to identify commonalities between war fighters," he says. "It also has the power to rip out the limitations of physical boundaries, like a base. Somebody can be on the other side of the country, but when the call goes out, I can reach out to them."
Caddy is convinced the only way to stem the tide of military suicides is when soldiers themselves become accountable.
"It starts," he says, "with us on the ground level."
It's in the language
Chris Poulin also wanted to use the power of Facebook to prevent military suicides. He'd always been interested in using language to predict events, from political outcomes to economic letdowns.
He points to the language of Norway mass shooter Anders Brevik, which was filled with clues that he was radicalized enough to act violently.
Poulin began thinking of a friend who had taken his own life. He had left digital breadcrumbs that he was having problems. His friends and family wished they had picked up on the signs. For them, it was too late.
How could he marry predictive linguistics with technology to identify service members and veterans at risk? Poulin approached Facebook, the Defense Department and the Veterans Administration. They are now partners in the newly launched Durkheim Project, named after pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who studied suicide. The project targets veterans, who are killing themselves at a rate of 22 a day, according to the VA.
It works this way: Veterans opt into the Durkheim Project, which installs an app on their devices and monitors their conversations and posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. A database at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth keeps track of locations and text messages.
Yes, it's a bit Big Brother. That's why veterans have to agree to the terms of the program.
"We are trying to push the boundaries on data privacy and get people to think about the issues," Poulin says, though he knows that may not sit well in the wake of NSA leaker Edward Snowden's NSA leaks. "There is no spying without your consent. You can opt out whenever you want.
"It's certainly true that suicide is an intensely private affair," he says. "They may not want to sign up, and we can't force them to. Or they may sign up when they feel fine, but years down, they might descend into darkness."
Poulin said monitors look for expressions of hopelessness or comments about sleeplessness or, feeling isolated. "People would be better off without me": That's a statement that will raise red flags.
At that point, a veteran's clinician will be alerted.
But a huge number of veterans do not seek counseling, so the Durkheim Project asks participants to name a buddy who can be called in an hour of need.
"If they have no one designated, we will at least say something positive to them," Poulin says.
Eventually, Poulin would like to see the Durkheim Project do interventions, but right now, he doesn't have the funding for it.