It was the third message that finally got my attention. "I EXPECT MORE ... BUT YOU MAY HAVE TO BE INCARCERATED," it screamed on the networking site LinkedIn last November. "FOR YOUR OFFENSE TO OUR CROWN . . . DO NOT TAKE IT PERSONAL."
I was beginning to take it personally. The author - a vague acquaintance - had been sending me nonsensical messages on social media since 2012. "Bad time to say this, but what is going on for real?" the first Facebook message read. "Nevermind, let me have a couple of dreams, not like that ... just a vision. You Mariah?"
From the beginning, I didn't respond. I figured the gibberishy message had been sent in error and soon forgot about it.
Then, after a lull of two years, she re-emerged with another Facebook message sent directly to me: "BEWARE!!!" she wrote. It startled me enough to click over to her profile, which, to put it mildly, was distressing. The page was plastered with ramblings that when decipherable at all suggested paranoia and delusions of grandeur. There were videos, too, in which my acquaintance stared blankly into the camera for minutes at a time.
If the internet is a public forum, then social media is the megaphone installed at the centre of it. Certainly it attracts oversharers, the ones who hash out break-ups in Facebook statuses and
live-tweet their days in embarrassing detail. We lurk in the cyber shadows and tsk and snicker - this is modern voyeurism at its most entertaining. Then there are people like my acquaintance who seem to be in a different, more dangerous kind of distress that seems private but is broadcast, intentionally or not, to a wide network of onlookers. It looks suspiciously like mental illness.
From the start, I was reluctant to respond to the messages. What would I say? I felt strange intruding on what seemed like a private matter. Surely someone who knew my acquaintance better would see her Facebook posts and intervene.
No one did. As I watched her profile with mounting concern - the posts just kept coming and her thousand-some Facebook friends remained silent - doing nothing felt increasingly wrong. I thought of the infamous 1964 Queens murder of Kitty Genovese, in which more than a dozen people were reported to have witnessed or heard the fatal stabbing attack but failed to come to Genovese's aid.
Now, I feared that I was experiencing a bystander effect for the modern age.
I thought of another friend from college who began behaving erratically on Facebook a few months after graduation. His breathless posts featured anything from religious rants to commentary on the latest Beyonce single. I didn't think much of it at the time, but things were much worse than they seemed.
"Basically, in 2009, I started getting more and more energy, sleeping less and less," he told me over the phone recently. "I started getting more religious, and then it got to the point where I decided I needed to administer to the homeless." He began picking up homeless people and buying clothes and other necessities for them.
If the internet is a public forum, then social media is the megaphone installed at the centre of it.
"It was coming from a good place, but it was very dangerous," he said. "I wound up smoking crack with some homeless people, and then I decided that I was the second coming of Jesus Christ, and it was my mission to bring about the Revelation. I did actually act a lot like Jesus - I was kind and selfless and that stuff. But I was also crazy."
Alarmed by his behaviour, my friend says his parents took him to specialists, who ultimately diagnosed bipolar disorder and got him help.
When he looks back at some of what he wrote, he says, "it's just crazy. I'm like, 'I'm so embarrassed, I can't believe I did that.' It's stuff I don't even remember".
He does remember, however, that several friends reached out, some messaging him to express concern. But he wishes these friends had contacted his relatives, who weren't following him that closely on Facebook, when they noticed how odd his posts had become.
Given his history, I worried that responding directly to my "BEWARE" acquaintance would be a waste of time. Instead, I fired off Facebook messages to three people who appeared to be related to her. I explained who I was and that I was concerned about her recent online behaviour. "I just want to make sure her family is aware and able to help her, should she need help," I wrote. I received no responses.
I contacted Facebook for guidance. Policy communications representative William Nevius directed me to a company blog post about Facebook's newest mental health initiative, which allows family and friends to tag troubling posts. According to Facebook, teams around the world review the posts - prioritising the most serious, like those threatening self-injury - and send help to the distressed party: contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for example, and suggestions to chat with a friend about their feelings.
But my acquaintance's messages and status updates didn't seem a fit for the Facebook tool. When I tried to use it, it asked if my acquaintance's posts were threatening, violent or suicidal, or whether they referenced graphic violence, vandalism or drug use. My answer was no. There were no buckets for posts that were strange, jumbled, plain worrisome or otherwise out of character. When I asked if another tool might better fit my purposes, I got no response from Nevius.
Still looking for answers, I called Keris Myrick of the Centre for Mental Health Services at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA. Myrick suffers from schizo-affective disorder, which is similar to schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Despite her diagnoses, she has said that she has developed coping mechanisms that help her live a rich and productive life, including the cultivation of a supportive Twitter community that knows her triggers.
Informing friends, online or otherwise, of symptoms to look for is important, Myrick said. She has been conflicted in the past about whether to reach out to a troubled person. Mental illness varies greatly from person to person, she said, and there's not always a clearly right thing to do. Still, Myrick said, there are some best practices.
"Many of them are things like not being judgmental, and reaching out and engaging the person in conversation," she said. "Remind a friend that mental illness is treatable and recovery is possible."
I called a national helpline. The dispatcher told me being concerned is "a very kind thing to do, and I honour you for doing that. But you can only give people information ..." She suggested I send a message expressing concern and including a link to the help line's website.
So that's what I did in early April. And then one day, a reply: "THANK YOU . . . THE ENTIRE NETWORK MAY NEED TO CHANGE," it read. "I WROTE BECAUSE MANY WERE FAILING TO RESPOND. BUT, I REALLY APPRECIATE THE CONCERN."
And then the floodgates opened. My acquaintance began barraging me with links to strange YouTube videos, and she made jumbled pleas to speak with me on the phone about topics unrelated to her mental state. I was distraught and confused. I repeated my previous suggestion that she call the hotline. And then I logged off.
In all, the experience left me feeling bleak. I'd done the best I could, but that didn't feel like enough.
It's clear that current tools designed to help people with mental illness don't account for situations like the one I encountered with my college acquaintance.
But given the ubiquity of social media, my gut tells me that there are more people like her out there than ever.