“I Knew I Was This Outsider Swooping Into a Really Intimate Community”

Amanda Hess on the challenges of reporting on suicide intervention and social media.

Amanda Hess explored the SuicideWatch and Depression subreddits for her piece.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

In celebration of Slate Plus’ first anniversary, we’re republishing a selection of pieces from the past year, including this article, which was originally published on Mar. 10, 2014.


Staff writer Amanda Hess’ piece on Reddit and suicide intervention, “ ‘Please Do Not Downvote Anyone Who’s Asked for Help,’ ” was published on March 3., 2015. In this interview for Slate Plus members, Hess talks about why she decided to report on suicide intervention, how she got in contact with her sources, and how they felt once her story was published on Slate.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jennifer Lai: Your recent story on Reddit and suicide prevention in the digital age explores how social media is changing the cry for help, as well as how those cries can be addressed. How did you first come into your interest in this story?

Amanda Hess: Over the past couple of years, two men in my extended professional network have live-tweeted mental health crises that culminated in crowdsourced suicide interventions. And almost every day, I’ll come across a tweet from a friend or stranger talking about feeling sad or not able to get out of bed or testing out a new SSRI. I started to get curious about the role of online communities—semipublic, semi-anonymous, semiremoved from our face-to-face relationships—and how they facilitate conversations about stigmatized experiences. Twitter is the network I use the most, so I was even more interested to see how this was all playing out in other spaces, and I ended up focusing pretty intimately on the Reddit sub, SuicideWatch.

Suicide is a very serious public health problem; it’s also a very sensitive, difficult topic to address. How did you begin to do your research for this piece, and what did your reporting process look like? 

I think Reddit is a really interesting place, and I suspected that there would be some forums there dedicated to mental health stuff, so I just went and tooled around a bit there and started messaging people who were posting on the /Suicidewatch and the /Depression subs. I wanted to get a sense of how more “traditional” suicide intervention experts thought about this stuff, so I reached out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and to NAMI. And I read as much research as I could get my hands on about suicide and Internet communities. I’ve written about gender for a long time, so I think I was just naturally attuned to noticing how gendered a lot of the resources are. There was something really ironic about the fact that even though suicide hotlines are expanding online, they’re still failing to reach a lot of young men who are really plugged into the Internet and also really need help. So that ended up shaping my reporting going forward.

What were some of the challenges you faced as you began talking to different sources? 

I was a little nervous to start reaching out to people on Reddit, just because I knew I was this outsider swooping in to a really intimate community. But everyone I spoke with was extremely generous. A few of the guys I ended up talking to who frequent /SuicideWatch and /Depression were themselves creative types—one was an art student, another an aspiring journalist—who integrate mental health stuff into their work, so I think they understood the kind of project I was doing. A few other people agreed to talk because they felt their words might help other people, which is why a lot of people post on these boards to begin with. On the flip side, I’ve also dealt with depression and know what it’s like to try to navigate a mental health system that can be confusing and intimidating and costly, so I think it was a little easier for me to get on the same wavelength with the people I interviewed. In general though, I usually find that if I reach out to talk to someone about their life—in this case, I just messaged people from my Reddit account—most people are remarkably open, which I am eternally grateful for. 

How long did it take for you to research, write, and complete the piece? 

Two and a half weeks, from start to finish, in between doing other stuff like fangirling over Fifty Shades of Grey and writing about revenge porn convictions and stuff like that.

For your story, you also tried to access Lifeline’s online services and chat rooms where crisis center counselors help people in distress. Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience and how you felt going through that process? 

I ended up not spending very much time in these more traditional settings, for a couple of reasons. For one, Alice Gregory had just written this amazing piece for The New Yorker about the Crisis Text Line that I thought did a really fabulous job of profiling that startup and also examining how a more traditional crisis line functions via text; I ended up quoting Alice’s piece a bit (everyone should read it!) but didn’t want to dwell too long on that territory. But also, I didn’t want to sap up any necessary resources that could otherwise go to someone in crisis, or to get into any situation where it wasn’t clear that I was a journalist. So the extent of that research was just simply trying to access the Lifeline’s online chat from a couple of different locations to test whether the thing was actually on.

Your piece has already been shared widely on social media and across the Internet. What are some of the responses you’ve gotten so far? Are they surprising?

I’m still kind of surprised when anyone reads anything I’ve ever written, which is a bad habit I have to break. One of my sources said that it was beautiful and thanked me for sharing it with him, which was maybe the sweetest feedback I’ve ever gotten from a source. A lot of the time as a journalist you’re writing stories that your sources won’t necessarily like—because you’re reporting on their bad behavior, or because there are two competing sides to the story and they’ll be a little miffed you reported on both of them, or because you don’t both see totally eye to eye, or whatever—and usually that’s appropriate. But in this case I really wanted to report as authentically as possible on the experiences of the people who use these boards, so it was nice to hear, in a couple of cases, that I had done them some justice in that way. I also got some constructive feedback from one suicide prevention expert, who tweeted about how I had used the term “commit suicide” once in the piece—that’s a stigmatizing term because it implies that people who die by suicide are criminals—and I really appreciated her doing that. I’ll definitely be more careful next time I write about this stuff. 

What have you learned from reporting on suicide intervention, and from talking to sources? 

A lot of people will give you a little window into their private lives if you just ask. Maybe it’s something we should all do more often.

Was there anything that you wanted to include in your story, but you didn’t get to?

Back to the suicide interventions I witnessed on Twitter: Both of those guys had made very poor decisions that hurt a lot of people, and their online cries for help happened at the height of those controversies. In both cases, virtual bystanders stepped up to intervene, and make sure they were safe, and call their families or loved ones, and they both ended up receiving mental health care. But now that they’ve returned to Twitter, those online support networks that rose up have disappeared. Few people are interested in engaging with them on Twitter anymore, and I can’t blame them. At some point it might be interesting to explore the complicated fallout of an online crisis intervention, but for this piece, I didn’t want their sort-of-notorious stories to distract from the other narratives I was hoping to tell. 

You recently started Users, a new column at Slate about the culture of the Internet. This was your first piece for the column. Why did you decide to delve into this topic first?

My editors and I have been tossing around a bunch of ideas since we conceived of the column, and this was one of many. But once I started looking into it, I just got really fascinated with the subject and didn’t want to put it on pause to look into something else. It felt right to do it first. 

What are some of the other topics you hope to explore in this column, going forward? ​

I’m going to write about any unexplored corner of the Internet, or strange virtual controversy, or teen obsession, or weird online job. Please send me ideas!