Scroll through the U.S. Department of Defense’s official Twitter account and you’ll find a reliable array of posts featuring tanks, training exercises, firearms, and the like. On Monday morning, though, the account tweeted something a little different, a message about the relationship between social media and mental health:
In a few scant hours, the message accumulated thousands of retweets, far more than usual for the account. The responses to the tweet provided a clue as to what was up, with users suggesting it was a shady subtweet of Donald Trump’s often unhinged Twitter presence.
While some of those replies were clearly snarky (New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer, in particular, appeared to be laughing at the whole business), it was easy enough to understand why some might have taken the post as a sideways smirk at the commander in chief. Over the weekend, Interior Department Twitter accounts temporarily went offline after the National Parks Service retweeted side-by-side photos of the 2009 and 2017 inaugurations. In other words, the idea of Trump at war with his own government’s social media accounts isn’t just funny; it’s also very real.
As it happens, though, that doesn’t appear to be what’s at stake with the Department of Defense tweet. The tweet links to an article discussing a Jan. 18 symposium on suicide prevention, one with seemingly noble intentions: “Social media platforms could also provide resources to help individuals understand when they should intervene and how to intervene with a friend,” the article’s author writes. This isn’t about smug diagnoses of the unwell, but about actually helping those who need it most.
That symposium, in its own right, appears to have built on research that has been underway for years. In 2014, for example, Kashmir Hill reported on information about references to suicide and self-harm that Whisper had given to Department of Defense researchers. What’s more, those researchers are hardly the first—or the only—to look into what social media posts can tell us about mental health.
Tempting as it is to treat the DOD’s tweet as the product of some intragovernmental civil war, then, it might be best to let this one go. Given the dispiriting frequency of suicide within military populations, this is work that probably deserves to be taken seriously.