WEDNESDAY, Dec. 14 (HealthDay News) -- Facebook is using its social-networking prowess to help prevent suicides in the United States and Canada.

The site is launching a service that will allow users to report a suicidal comment they see posted on Facebook using either a special "Report Suicidal Content" link or on the report links throughout the site. The person who posted the worrisome comment will immediately receive an email from Facebook encouraging them to call the toll-free U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or to click on a chat session with a crisis worker.

Both options are available 24/7 and provide free, confidential counseling to anyone in need.

The Lifeline, which has answered more than 3 million calls since it was launched in 2005, is funded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and administered by Link2Health Solutions, a subsidiary of the Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA-NYC).

Currently, the Lifeline already responds to dozens of people each day who have expressed suicidal thoughts on Facebook, according to a SAMHSA news release.

John Draper, the Lifeline's project director and vice president of crisis and behavioral health technology at MHA-NYC, said in the SAMHSA release that, "We have been partnering with Facebook since 2006 to assist at-risk users and are thrilled to launch this new service."

And according to Associated Press, lives have already been saved in this way: In July, for example, police intervened to help prevent a man from killing himself after a friend living in California alerted them to distressing postings on Facebook.

"Although the Lifeline on average handles 70,000 calls per month, we have heard from our Facebook fans and others that there are many people in crisis who don't feel comfortable picking up the phone. This new service provides a way for them to get the help they need in the way they want it," Draper added.

"Identification of those at risk is the cornerstone to suicide prevention," said Kelly Posner, director of the Center for Suicide Risk Assessment at Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute. "Facebook's innovative services enable concerned users, or 'friends,' to intervene immediately and initiate this life-saving identification process. Reaching people through venues that they use and providing them with referrals is an important and encouraging step in the right direction."

Joe Sullivan, chief security officer for Facebook, said the company is "proud" of the new effort. "The Lifeline's commitment to suicide prevention has enabled people on Facebook to get fast, meaningful help when they need it most, and we look forward to continuing our work with them to help save lives," he said.

And U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin also applauded the launch of the service. "Facebook and the Lifeline are to be commended for addressing one of this nation's most tragic public health problems," she said in the release. "Nearly 100 Americans die by suicide every day -- 36,035 lives every year. For every person who is murdered, two die by suicide. These deaths are even more tragic because they are preventable."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about suicide prevention.