We’re often encouraged to reach out and support friends and loved ones offline, ‘IRL’ (in real life) – taking a walk together, sitting down for a cup of tea, or just taking some time to talk about how we’re doing – and this is a great thing. But in today’s internet-connected world, many of us have friends who live far away who we stay in touch with using social media, email or texts.

In today’s post we want to share a few of the things you can look out for that might mean your friend is experiencing difficulties, to help you look out for their wellbeing just as much as the friends you see in person. In the next post, we’ll be exploring what you can do to help them online or via texts, if it’s not practical to see them face-to-face.

Changes in behaviour can be a warning sign that someone’s mental health is suffering, and you can spot these online as well as in person. They might:

  • Stop posting updates as much, or stop replying to messages as often;
  • Lose interest in things that they used to enjoy, such as no longer interacting with Facebook groups related to their interests or tagging you in news stories you’re both interested in;
  • Withdraw from conversations with friends making plans to meet up or go to an event.

You might be able to tell from their posts that their behaviour offline has changed as well. For example, insomnia is a common symptom of mental ill-health, so someone might mention feeling tired and low-energy and post updates in the middle of the night.

The tone of what they post or say might change. The way someone talks online might alert you that they’re not feeling well, such as:

  • Talking about feeling worthless or a burden on others;
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness;
  • Short, terse answers or long, unorganized posts that are out of character for them;
  • Negative statements about themselves, even if it sounds like they are joking, such as “I’m a waste of space,” “No one cares about me”, “I seriously hate myself.”

Of course, all of these things can be normal and part of everyday life – we all have bad days and sometimes those are reflected in our online activities. But by watching out for your friends’ wellbeing online, just as we do in everyday life, you might be able to spot when someone is struggling to cope and needs support. In our next post, we’ll be sharing some advice on how you can help a friend online get through difficult times.

Remember, if you think someone you know is at risk of suicide - for example, they talk about a specific plan for harming themselves or post something that seems like a goodbye/suicide note – contact The Samaritans at any time of day, on 116 123, or jo[email protected]. If you believe someone is in immediate danger, contact the emergency services on 999.

(With thanks to the National Suicide Prevention Alliance, whose Best Practice Guidelines for Responding to Suicidal Content Online helped to inspire and inform this post.)