You may be familiar with the story of Ashley Billasano – the shocking headlines and details gripped readers of print and online papers worldwide and left them asking “Why?” Billasano – a striking 18 year old girl from Texas – took to her twitter page on November 7, 2011 and poured her heart out to her 500 followers regarding allegations of sexual abuse and forced prostitution. In a compilation of 144 tweets, she described how her life had been forever changed by not only the abuse, but also the struggle she was encountering to see justice prevail. After spending six hours tweeting intimate details about her life, Billasano sent her last message to the world at 2:08 p.m. before committing suicide.
I remembered the first time I read Billasano’s story; it stopped me dead in my tracks and brought about a terrible sadness that the world had lost another young, beautiful woman with so much potential. Over the next few days after her suicide, I remember seeing a plethora of posts regarding young men and women who have reached out for help via social media. Strangers, all affected by Billasano’s death, were asking many questions concerning men and women from the Generation Y era, such as “Why is this generation so comfortable speaking openly via the Internet?” and “What can family members or friends do if they see posts or tweets that seem like a cry for help?”
I was curious about some of same things: what would be the best approach to take if I saw someone reaching out on one of my social media feeds? What are the signs to look for if someone is considering suicide? What if someone I knew was being harassed or bullied and they were beginning to close themselves off from the world, how could I help them? In my search for answers to these questions, I found two experts – one in the field of psychology and the other in social media – who gave me a surplus of great advice and information to share with the readers of The Good News. So now, I ask you, in remembrance of Ashley Billasano and many other young men and women who felt that suicide was their only option to escape the pain, to pay close attention to the information shared in this article – you may just save a precious life.
A Psychologist’s Clinical Assessment
Dr. Matthew Clark of Michigan, a fully licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy, offered much insight regarding the psychological aspects expressed by someone going through abuse and victimization. Dr. Clark began by explaining that young women who have been molested or are currently being molested display a wide variety of negative effects through their personality and behavior. He shared that through the abuse, their identity is being formed as an “easy mark” for males to use them sexually and they become more vulnerable which leads to further victimization. Many of these young women often feel that their only value is in their sexual behavior and they often have feelings of worthlessness and low self-image. “Some girls turn to cutting themselves, drugs and alcohol, rebellion and giving up on life – not investing in academics or activities,” shares Clark. “Billasano likely felt trapped, beaten down, further abused, ashamed, demoralized, alone, worthless and desperate to end the pain that she had been experiencing in isolation for so long. The predator had won. Suicide seemed her only way to end the pain and the abuse. The channels that were supposed to rescue her showed to be ineffectual, uncaring and obsolete.”
I asked Clark to touch on how social media has become a platform for these victims to reach out for help or express their pain. “Often the world of social media is as much of a teen’s world as is the ‘real world’. Many teens, especially girls, spend hours on Facebook, twitter or other forms of social media. It is similar to boys who play hours of video games; this becomes their world. They become addicted to it. In this world they will say or do things that they would not do in face-to-face contact or even on the phone, where one can get an immediate response from someone. They often feel that they are sending their cries out to everyone,” Clark explained. “Although it is possible to later erase a post, many people could have already seen it by that time. The teenage brain’s frontal lobe area is still developing, so they are less likely to think of long-term consequences, act impulsively, and think illogically. Their emotional and ‘flight and fight’ regions of their brains, however, are more developed; suicide or self-harm are the most severe forms of ‘flight.'”
Clark went on to add, “The world of a teenager is often self-centered and dramatic. Facebook and other forms of social media serve as the stage in which the teenager becomes the star – the arena in which they vent their pent up thoughts and feelings. They are able to pour out their inner, darkest thoughts without direct, real consequences. It is often a way to get affirmation from others and to let their peers know how they are feeling and the pain or anger they are experiencing.”
Next, I wanted to know Clark’s opinion regarding whether or not people are seriously taking these cries for help on social media sites and what one can do when they see a family member or friend reaching out. “From my clinical experience, peers often take the teen’s cries for help in social media seriously. They respond with words of encouragement and attempt to try to dissuade them from thinking so darkly. Unfortunately, there are also chat rooms out there on the web in which youth encourage each other to commit suicide or revel in negativity and thinking despondently,” Clark told. “If someone sees a post where someone is reaching out for help, they should send out positive, encouraging words as soon as possible in response. Next, I would suggest that they attempt to reach out to them by phone or texting. Depending on the severity of the post, I highly encourage people to contact the person’s parents. The teen may initially act angry concerning this, but in all the situations that I have dealt with, the teen eventually comes around and is grateful to know that someone out there cared enough to risk their relationship, in order to get them help. If a teen is at this low of a predicament, they need to get the teen psychological therapy, even if the teen is resistant. If they claim to be suicidal or you believe they are at risk of suicide, call the nearest emergency room or psychiatric hospital for them to be evaluated.”
In conclusion, I asked Dr. Clark to discuss what the parental roles should be in these types of situations and how they can help prevent a tragedy from happening. “For parents, it’s important to attempt to keep open communication going with your children and teenagers. Be there for them in as much of a non-judgmental way as possible. Listen to them. With teens, it’s a thin line between prodding and letting them know that you are there to listen and to give advice if they ask for it. Keep an eye on your teenager. If they seem more isolated, often look like they are feeling down, complain about peer or boyfriend/girlfriend relationship problems, if their homework and grades start slacking, or they no longer want to join in activities they used to enjoy, then these are warning signs that your child may be suffering. If they say they are feeling really bad, or have no friends, or don’t care about anything in life, they are likely in need of individual, group, or family therapy.
Also, if anyone feels their child is at risk for suicide it is important to get rid of firearms, sharp knives and razor blades, and to monitor them closely,” he explained.
An Expert Opinion of Social Media’s Positive and Negative Aspects
For an in-depth discussion on the role of social media in the lives of young men and women, I sought out social media expert Ryan Cuvelier, the Co-founder and Lead Strategist of Metronome3, a Social Media Agency based in New York City. Cuvelier, who is currently in the initial stages of developing a mobile anti-bullying app for the New Jersey Board of Education, began by expressing that Billasano’s story “struck a chord with him”. Cuvelier feels that today’s youth grew right into this renaissance of communication that we’re experiencing.
“Every physical relationship that middle and high school students have with other students at school is somewhere reciprocated on the digital front. Communication is more accessible and teenagers can digitally represent themselves through Facebook, twitter and blog platforms. These digital representations of self are direct outlets for teens to express themselves, how they’re feeling and where they are in their lives. Whether it’s directly saying what’s on their mind, posting photos/music or quoting lyrics of songs – they are using this as a platform to voice their thoughts at any given time,” he shared. “While we are not all psychologists, we can be aware and read into repetitive behavior that could be interpreted as signs of distress. It’s up to the parents to be actively involved in their children’s social presence online – they have all the tools necessary to protect their children. This is a huge part of our everyday lives now, and it’s crucial for parents to educate themselves with these new technologies so they can continue to be the great parents they are.”
Because young men and women use social media sites to reveal their pain or distress, it has also been used by bullies to cause pain or distress – sometimes ending in the suicide of the person being bullied. Cuvelier touches on cyberbullying, which has become a huge problem since bullies have so many more tools at their disposal.
“Mobile devices have given tools to people that instantly connect them to a massive audience where they can tweet harsh sayings or upload malicious videos with the touch of a button. With social connections becoming more and more prevalent in our society, it simply means more eyes on content at a faster rate,” he explained. “When people see bullying taking place or someone crying out for help, they should take these signs seriously. What may seem like a simple status update can really be a more serious call for help. Monitor your friends and family’s social feeds, see if there are any reoccurring cycles of behavior, or if the tonality becomes darker and more serious. Make sure you confront them and offer them help,” he added.
Regarding the Billasano case and why she chose social media as her vehicle to share her painful situation with the world, Cuvelier expressed that “students are using these networks as diary mechanisms that allow them to share their heart and soul into this realm of ‘non-judgment’ – though people can see what is shared on these networks, most of the time there is not a ton of immediate feedback, so it’s used as a form of emotional release. Even though she spoke about this abuse vocally, she may have felt that her messages could have a wider audience through these networks.”
It is apparent that in today’s world, social media is the venue of choice for youth to express themselves. One glaring positive that I see regarding social media sites is that young men and women are openly sharing their deepest thoughts and concerns for all to see. With this information at our fingertips, it is easy for us to offer help to those who are crying out. Years ago, people cried out for help in a different way. We didn’t have the advantage that we have today through social media that gives us an up-close and personal glimpse into the daily behavior of our friends and family members. I feel that we need to utilize the benefits that social media offers us and that it could potentially be the link that saves lives.
Marisa can be reached [email protected].