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Teens in emotional distress may post about their mental health on social media. Getty Images
  • Troubled children who genuinely seek emotional support online feel worse when other users suggest they’re simply trying to get attention.
  • “Sadfishing” is when someone solicits attention online by posting something emotional.
  • There’s no definitive way to tell whether someone is truly in crisis, so any alarming post should be taken seriously, say experts.

Is your friend on social media looking for support, or is something seriously wrong?

It’s hard to tell where someone is coming from when they post something emotional on social media. A new survey warns that how we respond could be harmful if the person is troubled.

When someone solicits attention online by posting something emotional, it’s known as “sadfishing.” But some social media users can view emotional posts as just a way to get attention and miss the signs of serious distress.

According to a report based on interviews with more than 50,000 students ages 11 to 16, troubled children who genuinely seek emotional support online feel worse when other users suggest they’re simply trying to get attention.

In some cases, how their peers responded was even more harmful to their mental health. It also made some children vulnerable to further manipulation.

It’s hard to tell whether someone is looking for support or just attention, since social media doesn’t provide the context that in-person interactions do, according to Lindsey Giller, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York.

“It can be tricky to read too much into a person’s social media postings since people may often vent or post messages with a particular audience (or individual) in mind,” explained Keely Kolmes, PsyD, a psychologist in the San Francisco area.

There’s no definitive way to tell whether someone is truly in crisis, so any alarming post should be taken seriously, adds Jelena Kecmanovic, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Arlington, Virginia.

And someone may indeed want or need attention because they’re in emotional distress.

One way to try and determine whether someone is really in trouble (namely, about to harm themselves or another person) is to think back about previous posts.

If they seem to be having a hard time and it comes out of the blue, that could be a sign they need help, says Shoshana Bennett, PhD, a clinical psychologist from California.

“If this person is typically dramatic and posts often in this manner, you’ll probably react differently than if the post is out of character and unusual,” Bennett said. “No matter what, if a friend talks seriously about hurting himself, check in and make sure he’s OK, or connect with mutual friends to find out if anyone else has already done so.”

If the person tends to discuss not wanting to live, it should be taken seriously, Giller added.

Keep in mind that not everyone is open to discussing their mental health online, but some people find it empowering. As such, their post may be a request for support so they feel connected and hopeful, Giller says.

Concerned about someone you know and want to take action?

Before responding, consider if you think the person is just having a hard time, or if they’re suicidal. That can help you tailor your response.

Reach out via a private mention, call, or have a conversation in person. Tell them you saw their post and are concerned, or offer up a referral to counseling or a mental health support hotline, Giller says.

Responding to posts online can influence mental health, so be mindful if you respond. Saying something careless could be even more distressing, as well as minimizing someone’s pain, Giller adds.

“If someone is deeply troubled and the issue isn’t a quick, temporary situation, social media can at least be a catalyst for the person to hopefully get professional help,” Bennett said. “It can be very reassuring to receive messages online from others who are compassionate.”

Fran Walfish, PsyD, a family and relationship psychotherapist in California, agrees that responding one-on-one is key.

“The biggest risk [of responding openly in a post, for example] is inadvertently setting your friend up for bullying and public humiliation,” she said.

It’s OK to ask someone whose post you think may be serious if they’re having thoughts about hurting themselves, or if they’re feeling hopeless.

“It is imperative to also remind the desperate person that ending their life is a permanent termination to a temporary problem and state of mind,” Walfish added.

It’s OK to refer a friend for professional help, too. People who work in the mental health or crisis services fields are trained in suicide prevention and can respond to a situation that may be overwhelming to an untrained person.

If you’re truly concerned about someone’s safety, helping them call 911 or a suicide prevention line, or getting them to go to the ER, can prevent suicide, Kolmes adds.

“People who are not trained in crisis services should not put themselves in a position to try to prevent a suicide,” Kolmes said. “Instead, it’s best to get the person to seek help or to get someone involved who is professional trained to intervene in an emergency.”