Sinead O’Connor‘s alarming Facebook posts last weekend, detailing familial strife and her struggles with depression, escalated to an emergency when the Irish singer wrote that she had taken an overdose and was in a hotel under an assumed name on Nov. 29. She was quickly found and taken to a hospital, with a source informing Billboard she was “safe” a few hours later.
Dublin police tell Billboard that O’Connor was found and rescued thanks to the staff at her hotel, who recognized her and phoned in. The local Irish police do not have a dedicated cyber department to sleuth out a person’s whereabouts based on a Facebook post, he explained: “Until the likes of Google and Facebook and these people manage to plant chips in it, how are we going to, really?”
O’Connor’s Facebook page was deleted Wednesday after several more disturbing updates. But a big question lingers: What can friends, family, colleagues and strangers do in this age of social media if they see a desperate post by a person threatening suicide or making erratic posts that point to depression?
Experts say the first order of business is simple: Call the local police or 911. That is the first step, if one sees an online post from someone threatening suicide.
“We always advise people that if they feel there’s somebody in a vulnerable position, then, of course, contact the local [police] station,” a spokesman in the press office of Ireland’s police force tells Billboard.
“They should try to validate the concern,” Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America (MHA), tells Billboard. “In other words, don’t minimize it, don’t make fun of it, don’t say, ‘Oh you can pull yourself out of it.’ They should first of all validate it and then, second, encourage the person to follow up, to talk to a family member, to talk to a clinician, go see a doctor.”
If the situation appears critical, however, he recommends calling 911. Police, sheriffs and many first responders are now trained in mental health. “You call first,” Gionfriddo says. “Better to be embarrassed and say, ‘I overreacted,’ than to regret having underreacted.” If you are personally in touch with the individual, encourage them to go to the nearest hospital emergency room.
O’Connor’s mental health issues — a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder, later amended to PTSD, including depression and suicidal tendencies — have been very public. And she’s just one of millions globally trying to cope with their illness; statistics say 1 in 5 people in America deal with a mental health issue. “Mental health” is an umbrella term for a wide range of medically diagnosed disorders as diverse as anorexia, OCD, ADHD, agoraphobia, schizophrenia and addictions. Diagnosis is key to getting help.
“Because depression in particular, and mental health conditions in general, are ubiquitous, one of the things we can do and offer is an online screening program,” says Gionfriddo. “The reason why that is so important is so many mental health issues begin during childhood and really emerge in full force in teens and 20s. And a lot of people often turn to creative enterprises to deal with those kinds of feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc, but the important thing is to recognize that there is help available.
“We’ve had about a million completed screens now in the year and a half since it’s been up [online], and three-quarters of those folks are female, like Sinead O’Connor. About 60 percent, 55 percent, are under the age of 25 who go and screen, and two-thirds of those people screen as positive for the condition they’ve screened; two-thirds of those people say they’ve never been diagnosed before with any condition.
“What we can then do is refer them to our affiliates — 200 of them around the country who have access to local resources that are available for people. We can refer them to a set of online tools that they can use. We can help them understand what the condition is so that they can open up a conversation with family, friends and providers. All three things are really important — talking about things, getting some help and beginning to deal with a concern before it reaches a crisis stage.”
Musicians aren’t different from anyone else, but they do have circumstances unique to their occupation: long periods of time away from friends and family; being on tour when a loved one dies or a spouse files for divorce; the loss of a record deal or career decline. These situations might not lead to clinical medical depression, but they can lead to rash and life-threatening behavior.
Debbie Carroll, senior executive director, MusiCares — a confidential financial and resource service set up in 1989 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) to help people in the music industry — says help is available for the person going through tough times, and the family, bandmates, management, and label personnel who want to get that person help.
If financial assistance is needed, they do have to show bank statements and tax forms, but help can be “done quickly,” Carroll says, and shouldn’t intimidate the person not to reach out to MusiCares. “I don’t want to publicize that we don’t do a tremendous amount of verification about somebody not having resources, but we err on the side of generosity, I will say that. So if the individual needs some support around a mental health issue and addiction issue, we don’t make them jump through hoops.”
Likewise, financial problems are relative, she says. “I don’t know too many people who don’t spend what they have, so just because you’re living a fairly comfortable life, that doesn’t mean you don’t have obligations and can afford $175 or $150 a week or $3500 to go to an intensive workshop to address things like this. So we are there to support that.”
MusiCares, with offices in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, has far-reaching tentacles to help across North America and can put a person in touch with professionals who understand problems and stressors unique to musicians and music industry people.
“We served about 4,600 people nationwide last year with financial assistance. So those are bus drivers, band guys, managers, record label folks, anybody that works in the music industry — they can absolutely reach out to us,” says Carroll. “In addition to that, we have our Healthy Essentials program, which are workshops and clinics that address various topics, including depression; how to survive the spring tour, meaning, what you can do to take care of yourself during the craziness of going out on the road, how can you take care of your family; re-entry, in addition to leaving and going out on the road. We do a lot around educating people on those topics.”
Again, if one sees a post from someone who is suicidal, you can call MusiCares and they will put you in touch with the right person. “Obviously if somebody is writing a post about being actively suicidal, people need to jump on that immediately, whether they believe that person is going to follow through with that or not. That is a huge plea for help,” says Carroll. “We would then refer them to a crisis line who can help assess the situation and get the police there immediately. But we know of those resources to guide those people if needed.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is also a great resource, with a wealth of information about understanding suicide, preventing suicide and coping with loss.
Leading expert Dr Jill Harkavy-Friedman, AFSP’s vp of research, says, “We actually did a poll with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and the National Action Alliance, and found that close to 47 percent of people thought that at some point in their life they had experienced a mental health condition.”
How does one know if it’s a mental health condition or simply sadness as a result of a particular incident, like a death or break-up? “First of all, a condition doesn’t go away by itself,” says Dr. Harkavy-Friedman. “It may go away over time, but it persists more than the usual grieving time. So depending on the condition, it may be more than two weeks, or a month, or six months. We have some understanding of what the normal process of coping and grieving entails. It’s when it’s unrelenting and you find there aren’t moments of feeling back to your normal self. It’s affecting your sleep and your appetite; you start to withdraw from people; you start to feel worthless — it’s a much more internal process.
“With depression or anxiety, people often don’t reach out. They don’t even feel like there are people to reach out to. And that’s part of the problem… The majority of suicides are by men, and they don’t necessarily reach out about their mental health,” Dr. Harkavy-Friedman says. “[We need to] change the stigma that is attached to mental health problems.
“There’s actually something called man therapy, which talks about and tries to connect with men about reaching out for help and trying to do things to improve your mental health. But it is definitely a big problem right now. Men aren’t the only ones who don’t show what’s going on, but we don’t know the warning signs. Hindsight is 20/20. Often when there’s a suicide, then people gain the knowledge that we’re trying to share: what depression looks like, what substance use looks like, what humiliation looks like. When people go back and review what happened, they can see the signs that they didn’t know were signs of distress. And some people are very good at covering it up. They can put a face on and go to work every day, but inside they’re cracking and they’re in terrible pain.”
In this age of social media, what can people do when they see cries for help online?
“First of all, Facebook is one of the social media organizations that actually can help,” says Dr. Harkavy-Friedman. “And if you are on Facebook and you go to the help section and say, ‘I’m worried about someone that’s talking about suicide,’ you can report that to Facebook and they will share resources and try to contact the person. The second is to share resources on social media. You can say, ‘I care about you, please call 1.800.273.8255 — that is the national suicide hotline.'”
Among the thousands of positive and helpful messages fans posted to O’Connor under her Facebook status, there were also callous responses such as “Do it” or “Too bad someone intervened.”
“There are also terrible sites on the web and on Facebook of people who are encouraging self-destructive behavior,” Dr. Harkavy-Friedman says. “Fortunately there are more positive sites than negative sites. The only thing you can be is more positive, and hopefully that will ring true. One of the things that you can do for that person in that moment is say, ‘Wait. Take some time. Let’s think about other things that can help you. I know you’re in terrible pain.'”
Harkavy-Friedman says it’s important not to turn a blind eye to depression until it’s too late.
“We’re often very forgiving. We say, ‘Oh they’re having a bad day.’ ‘It’s just a bad week.’ But really the thing is to reach out and say, ‘I notice that you’re not sleeping, feeling grumpy, whatever. What’s going on?’ And if they’re just having a bad day, if you see it the next day, ask again. And then try to stay connected, because that we know is one protective factor for people who are suicidal — they disconnect. They feel like a burden. And killing yourself is much more of a burden than getting help.”