Samaritans Radar: it’s about more than privacy

Today the Samaritans launched a Twitter app designed, essentially, to help stop people in mental health crisis from slipping through the digital net.

As the charity relies almost entirely on volunteers, and as suicide remains one of the UK’s biggest killers, I can certainly see why they might commission a project which monitors people’s tweets and gives them thousands of extra eyes and ears across the platform.

How does it work?

Samaritans Radar isn’t a sentiment analysis app, it uses keywords to detect when someone is really struggling and might be at risk of taking their own life. Tweets containing those keywords are then sent as an alert to another user who has requested to ‘monitor’ that person’s account.

So why are people upset?

Building an app which allows users to set up alerts on each other’s profiles is all a bit Orwellian and the majority of concerns raised have centred around privacy. The mental health community on Twitter is a strong one and many use it as a way of communicating and supporting each other almost privately using the @mentions feature. The idea that their tweets might be curated and reported on by a third party has caused a huge amount of anxiety in the few hours since its launch.

An added and important concern is that it’s the Samaritans causing this anxiety, they are such a trusted player in the mental health world and for many they’re a lifeline in a crisis, people feel badly let down, perhaps more so than if an anonymous agency had developed the idea.

Is there more to be worried about?

Yes. Although privacy has emerged as the leading cause for concern today, I don’t think it’s the most important one. Currently, many of the people who are so worried about the app are using Twitter in a way that isn’t compatible with the how the platform is designed. Feeling like you’re having a private conversation is not the same as having one, Twitter is the very antithesis of private and everything outside of the DM feature is publicly accessible. Samaritans Radar does not change that.

Three things we should also consider

1. People shouldn’t feel it’s their responsibility to save anyone. Working in mental health for four years, one of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that often people don’t feel they deserve support. This means that many who have struggled themselves want to give back as much as they feel they have taken and will sign up to the app to help anyone they can. When someone isn’t well themselves this isn’t helpful or healthy and makes people vulnerable to a decline in their own mental health. As a result, I think Samaritans Radar risks hurting as many people as it helps.

2. Users aren’t trained to support people in crisis. Although, broadly speaking, people within Twitter’s mental health community have personal experience and may well have a good idea what first response support might look like, it shouldn’t be their responsibility to be that person when someone’s in crisis. It puts an enormous onus on those people to know exactly how to respond, placing them in the vulnerable position of feeling responsible for saving someone’s life. Imagine if you were someone receiving alerts and you missed one because you were out to dinner with a friend or because you were in hospital receiving support for a decline in your own mental health. If you later logged onto Twitter to find that someone had taken their own life after sending a tweet that you’d been alerted to but hadn’t seen, you wouldn’t be responsible for their death but it’s not a huge stretch to imagine you might feel that way.

3. It matters whether someone makes the choice to tell the right people how they feel. This is perhaps the most important one for me because it gives power to the person in crisis. Our systems are crap, people wait forever for help, they’re not listened to, they’re not treated with dignity and respect, they’re turned away from A&E and they’re often not even counted as ill because what they live with is a mental rather than physical condition. The most important power that people have to change services and attitudes in mental health is their voice. I firmly believe that people shouldn’t be passive recipients of support, they should ask for it and be given it as a result, just like anybody with cancer or a heart defect. Samaritans Radar allows people to send a tweet into an anonymous void for technology to then pick up and make another user’s concern. Support shouldn’t be this way, people should know where to go to get it and have faith in a system they pay for that what they need is available, accessible and life changing.

That’s what will save people, it’s not down to the merits of any app, it’s down to all of us to demand that the gap in the market that led to Samaritans Radar should not exist in the first place.

How Mind managed to publish breaking news, from 2011

Today a totally ridiculous coincidence happened, which I want to document somehow since it was fun to fix and will probably never happen again.

What happened

When Mind launched their new website back in November 2012, we hired a keen team of digital volunteers to set about the tedious task of migrating content from one site to the other. Mind has a huge site, it was an endless and dispiriting task which we eventually decided to shelve, once the main content was over.

What we left behind were several hundred old news stories and blogs, back as far as 2010. Since then we’ve had a fair amount of internal and external pressure to bring the rest across, none more demanding than and its hard to ignore report of 404 errors resulting from dead inbound links. Google is our master and we’ve been willing anarchists causing SEO chaos all over the internet, it was time for action.

A few weeks ago we decided to revisit the monster; exported the dead links in priority order and hired someone to migrate them. He’s been doing his job excellently for most of every day since he started, all’s been fine.

Today, we had an announcement to make, a lot of work went into getting as far as launching the story and the last bit was the news article – no big deal. The media team added the news story, naming it “Mind Media Awards: shortlist announced”, which naturally inherited the standard url format taking into account its structural position and title. All fine.

Elsewhere in the office, not 20 seconds before this happened, our patient content migrator had published a story, from the hundreds he was working through, called “Mind Media Awards shortlist announced”, a defunct page from back in 2011. Not a risk, right? Our CMS is smart enough not to let us name two pages the same thing, that would be silly. Except that he didn’t, there was no colon in his news story, so the website says “fine, these are different things, you can have both.”

But back in the 1970s, a group of nerds at Ascii decided characters like colons in a url pathway would probably confuse or break things, so decided to omit them, which means servers don’t read that they were ever there, even if good CMSs like Umbraco are fine with the whole thing.

At 4pm we tweet our release and point to the news story – right before some sharp-eyed tweeters alert us to the fact we’ve sent out a story from 2011. I’ve been managing the migration guy while my boss is away so know straight away what must have happened (and what a ridiculous coincidence! Of all the hundreds of urls on that list!)

To solve it, I set up a 301 from his content node to ours. Only of course it doesn’t work, because Umbraco knows they’re different, but the server’s thinking “why are you making me serve this page in circles you strange person, what kind of digital officer are you?” And I’m thinking “how on earth did this all happen at the same time?!”

The resolution

We delete the migrated page, change the url of the news story and set up a 301 from the old to the new. Sorted. 15 minutes of team-awe ensue, while the rest of social media is none the wiser.


What’s wrong with irresponsible reporting around suicide

Yesterday the world received the sad news that Robin Williams had taken his own life after struggling with addiction and depression for many years.

Despite its prevalence, depression is still a much misunderstood illness and mental health organisations, along with their supporters, fight hard to ensure it has parity of esteem with physical health conditions.

A lot has been achieved in recent years, through huge national campaigns such as Time to Change, as well as the work of leading mental health charities like Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

As ever, the media have a huge role to play in shaping public attitudes towards mental health, as well as a responsibility to report on suicide in a way that is neither glorifying nor triggering for the millions of people around the world who are struggling.

The first tweet I saw about Robin’s death was the beginning of what I knew would be a shameful few days of irresponsible messaging which can, ultimately, claim further lives.

This post by The Academy is intended to be a well meaning tribute to the star’s work as the Genie from Aladdin. It has been retweeted over 3000,000 times so far, as undoubtedly kind hearted people from all over social media continue to share it in Robin’s memory.

They shouldn’t.

Despite its good intentions, what this post says is ‘when the pain gets too much, there is a way out.’ Wanting it all to stop is such a common feeling for people who are struggling with suicidal feelings and the media cannot continue to portray taking one’s own life as a peaceful solution to all-consuming depression. It isn’t peace, freedom or tranquility, it’s death – a permanent end to everything you are.

It’s dispiriting to have to talk about them but, as ever, the tabloids deliberately abused well established media guidelines on responsible reporting about suicide. If there’s one rule which everybody in the industry can’t help but know, it’s that you never ever mention methods. Doing so is akin to publishing an instruction manual to vulnerable people on the most effective way to end your life and leads to what researchers call ‘contagion’ or copycat deaths.

Particularly horrific examples include:

This is not ok and the Samaritans guidelines on responsible reporting are freely available for anybody who’s unsure, please do read and share them when you can.

Now that they’re out there, it’s not too late to make a complaint and help make sure these guidelines are followed. You might just save a life.

Unpaid internships are still not OK

I love my job, my paid, professional London job with its salary and other such luxuries that allow me to eat, pay my rent and keep the cat happy. But this doesn’t stop me keeping a casual eye on what else is out there, what kind of jobs are coming up in my area of work and what my opportunities might be in the future.

What shocks me most about idly flipping through the charity job listings is how many which match my experience and interests are unpaid. These are full-time, long-term positions, often requiring some level of previous digital experience and invariably for the most wealthy and high profile third sector organisations.

This is not okay, and it’s not okay for three reasons

1. To expect somebody to work for nothing over any extended period of time is exploitative. If they are to turn up regularly at a given place and time in order to complete tasks assigned to them then they are working, and if they are working then they should be paid, like everybody alongside them.

2. To advertise what is essentially a professional role and yet describe it as a voluntary internship undermines those of us who occupy those positions as part of our careers. When an organisation hands all or part of its digital communications over to somebody who isn’t valued enough to be paid, it sends a message that the role isn’t worth paying for and makes it difficult for smaller organisations to justify the creation of permanent posts themselves.

3. Increasing an organisation’s capacity through the ongoing recruitment of interns sets an impossible standard for how much one department can achieve. In the charity sector, organisations are in constant competition for the best campaigns, the biggest impact, the best management of social media, but if reaching these goals is artificially inflated by an unpaid workforce then it leaves others with no choice but to play by the same rules.

What about the interns themselves?

Arguments against paying interns are often centred around a lack of experience. This perpetuates the frustrating cycle which many young people in particular find themselves in – they need a job in order to gain experience, but are not able to find a job because they don’t have experience. Without addressing this problem, the existence of exploitative internships will continue as young people are forced to work for nothing in order to stand a chance of entering the paid job market.

Another difficulty for many interns is that working for free quickly becomes an exclusive opportunity, only available to people whose family and friends are able to financially support them through it. This creates a socially unacceptable divide in which those with a wealthy family friend in Islington can live and eat for free, in central London, for the duration of their placement, whereas those without these connections can’t afford the time away from their paid student jobs in order to do what is too often necessary to get onto the career ladder.

What are the exceptions?

There are many reasons why people decide to volunteer within a third sector organisation and not all of these amount to the willing exploitation of desperate graduates.

For some, taking a short-term voluntary role is a way of building confidence after a period of being out of work, perhaps due to illness, family commitments or a change in lifestyle. Volunteering can also be a way of trying out a new sector or transitioning from student to working life. These are all very different circumstances and what sets these placements apart from exploitative internships is their short-term and entirely flexible nature.

Departments hiring volunteers are, of course, benefiting from the extra capacity that another set of hands brings to a communications team. With that, I think, comes a responsibility to provide as much flexibility, training, nurturing and investment as that person needs in order to get where they want to go.

For this to work effectively, charities need to believe in the value of investing in somebody who can not only help them in the short-term, but also go on to contribute to the wider digital landscape once they’re on that more established path.

Similarly, there needs to be a growing belief that one or two month voluntary placements are enough to qualify for a permanent, paid position at the nearest level. As a sector, it’s important we move away from demanding that people have six months to a year’s unpaid experience, because it’s both unfair and unrealistic. As we all know, everybody has to start somewhere, so I say let’s stop worrying about endless experience and give people that chance to get into digital.

Three problems with the no makeup selfies for cancer

A month on and there’s no denying the success, in fundraising terms, of the no makeup selfies for cancer. They raised millions for Cancer Research UK, the first to spot their potential and channel participants to a text giving account.

The campaign ticked all the boxes for creating sharable content – it was image based, easy to do, involved a small twist on everyday photo sharing and was perfectly set up for social media.

Nevertheless, as soon as the campaign began, three niggling questions burned away in the back of my mind:

What does not wearing makeup have to do with cancer?

I love creating sharable content, it’s exciting, it’s satisfying, it has the potential to drive change and lead to something positive – it’s a great thing to be part of.

That said, taking a sharable action and tenuously uniting it with a disease that affects everybody is lazy. It undermines the communications industry and places organisations which focus on high profile causes at an unfair advantage.

It’s important to remember that the no makeup selfies were successful for two reasons, both the content and the cause. If we take away the cause then it’s a good idea, but it’s nothing new or groundbreaking. Cancer was the key ingredient which guaranteed viral, inspiring, money making success.

Good digital media campaigns need to be meaningful, justifiable and contribute to wider learning about what works and what doesn’t. This campaign doesn’t help smaller organisations working hard to change the world, because all it teaches the sector is that people really, really care about cancer.

If this is being linked to bravery, isn’t that appallingly insensitive?

Amid the confusion was a rumbling implication that the no makeup selfies were in some way linked to bravery. Throughout the campaign I saw a number of references to a genuinely brave woman who had had a double mastectomy and who shared a photo of her body in order to raise awareness and tackle the fear and stigma associated with the operation.

To suggest that everyday women taking makeup-less photos of themselves on the way to the gym was in any way an act of bravery, in this or in any other context, demonstrated a shameful lack of empathy for the millions of people struggling with the terrifying reality of having cancer.

Isn’t this whole idea a bit cringingly anti-feminist?

Finally, feminism took a real hit during this campaign and watching social media overflowing with women making demeaning and pro-patriarchal statements about themselves was intensely dispiriting.

“It’s all for a good cause” is no reason to send social progress careering back to the turn of the twentieth century. Women gave their lives to free us from these condescending stereotypes, so let’s please not forget there are plenty of other ways to give money to charity.

You could do it right now, here’s everything you need.

Women need to be asking when International Men’s Day is too

I saw a tweet on Saturday 8 March, International Women’s Day, which said “The least men can do on International Women’s Day is not to ask when International Men’s Day is.”

In fact I think the very opposite is true. When I read the tweet I wanted to know exactly when International Men’s Day was, I wanted to be absolutely certain that it existed and was celebrated with precisely the same passion and commitment as I was witnessing that weekend.

After all, feminism is about equality – the same rights, privileges and opportunities given to men and women alike. I don’t want to feel like an endangered baby tiger in need of some charitable giving and a purpose built sanctuary, I want to feel like an equal in society.

Days given over to addressing the difficulties faced by a particular group may be a good way of doing things, if we feel not enough is being done through ongoing public policy. But the idea that International Women’s Day means shaming men into silence and presenting ourselves as victims undermines not only how much has been achieved but the entire feminist ideal.

I think it’s vitally important we celebrate both, equally and positively. On International Women’s Day, we need to be campaigning to close the gender pay gap, challenge the absence of women in top professional positions, the undervaluing of women in sport, the belief that childcare and associated statutory leave are ‘women’s issues.’ Around the world, we need to be fighting to end the brutal mistreatment of women in cultures where suspected adultery carries a death sentence and nine year old girls are married off to older men for a lifetime of rape and subordination.

On International Men’s Day, we need to be campaigning to reduce the rate of male suicide, the lack of legal rights given to fathers when a marriage breaks down, the damaging impact of anti gay sentiment and propaganda, the increased chance of death in men with the same cancer diagnosis as women. Across the globe, we need to tackle the ongoing recruitment of boy soldiers in civilian conflict and support the protection of men of all ages working in physically unsafe environments without proper regulation.

Above all, it comes down to the overarching principle that dignity, respect and equality are basic human rights, for everyone.

1 million conversations about mental health

Today is 6th Feb, Time to Talk Day, which aims to spark an ambitious 1 million conversations across England and Wales about mental health. It doesn’t have to be anything profound, different, or life changing, just a simple conversation with someone you know, or even someone you don’t, about what this topic might mean to you.

You may never have thought about mental health before, and that’s even better, because if by the end of the day, more people are aware of what it is and how many people are affected, then we can all pat ourselves on the back for having taken part in something amazing.

My conversation

Everyone has good days and bad days, but for me sometimes, the bad days join themselves together into a mass of unrelenting blackness which makes me question who I am, what I’m doing, whether anything really matters and even whether I want to be around if it does.

I know I’m not alone in my experience of depression, I also know that feeling I’m not alone makes me one of the lucky ones. I have people who care about me, I work in a supportive environment where it’s ok not to be ok sometimes, and I’ve had professional help which has made a big difference too.

When I’m feeling fine which, since counselling, is thankfully more often than not, it helps me to make a mental note of things to think about when I’m struggling to see past the dark fog of anxiety and hopelessness in my head.

1.  My partner. Having her total support and knowing her opinion of me doesn’t change when I’m having a bad time helps enormously. It can be really hard to have conversations about mental health with people who love you, but in my experience it’s the thing that helps the most.

2. My friends. A couple of months ago I went through something hard and I received a Facebook message with a menu attached. It said these are all the things I’ll be cooking this week, and these are the days I’ll be cooking them on, you are welcome to any, none or all of these meals, no warning, I’ll make enough for you to just turn up if you want to. It’s difficult to remember sometimes that there are people in your life who will do things like this for you, people who think you’re worth it, and remembering they’re there makes a huge difference.

3. My job. I’m lucky enough to enjoy what I do, to not only believe passionately in the ethos of the organisation I work for, but also to enjoy the day to day of my job. I get to spend every day fixing digital things and talking about websites and gadgets. When it’s a struggle to feel that things matter to me, it helps to remember that.

4. My cat. Rusty is a new addition to my life but he’s a fantastic one. He’s loving and hilarious, all the things a fuzzy little kitten should be, but most of all I like that he’s dependent. He needs me to feed him, keep his stuff clean and think about his welfare. Having something else to look after other than myself gives me a powerful sense of purpose which I sometimes struggle to see.

Thinking about these things may not work for everyone and indeed they don’t always work for me, but if we all share our experiences and the little things that make a difference today then I think we’ll be on to something great.

Why we need advocacy

As a first blog post, advocacy seems like an appropriate choice as it’s something I’ve strongly believed in for many years. Here’s why:

Through no fault of its own, advocacy is one of those words which can’t help but sound a bit jargony. “Advocacy? Ah, so that’s like… What, exactly?”

Advocacy means supporting someone to speak up for what matters to them. In essence, it’s making sure we never forget that in a civilised society, everybody matters.

When I feel cheated or downtrodden by life’s many ups and downs, I write a letter to the people accountable. If my bins aren’t collected, I complain to the council, if I’m sold something faulty and denied a refund, I write to head office, if I feel uninformed and pressured into taking a new form of medication, I demand further consultation on my treatment options.

I am able to do this, my upbringing and fortunate social status have placed me in a position where if I am inconvenienced, taken advantage of or at risk, it is within my control to both expect and demand change.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I am. Many of our most vulnerable people in society struggle to access the essential tools and information to change an adverse set of circumstances for themselves.

That’s where advocacy comes in. Advocates work with people to ensure they have a voice in matters affecting them. Advocates will support people who struggle with reading, writing, asserting themselves, using telephones or computers, accessing a building, formulating an argument, knowing their rights. All things which many of us take for granted.

Too often it is assumed that exercising legal rights to be treated equally and to challenge difficult situations are within everybody’s control. But what if you have a learning disability which makes oral and written communication more difficult, mental health problems which cause debilitating anxiety attacks in certain situations, dementia which limits your understanding and awareness of what’s happening to you, or no registered address which stands in the way of you accessing support?

An advocate will work with someone to not only overcome these barriers, but also to give people the skills they need for greater self confidence and independence in the future.

Advocacy has such a crucial and long term benefit to our society that it’s hard to understand the struggle that champions go through to ensure its place in social care policy. Advocates help to break the revolving door cycle of escalating need which takes its toll on individual wellbeing and the cost of care services. Why wait until someone is in crisis before providing them with support?

We hear everyday how our emergency care services are pushed to the limit and once someone has been to that desperate and hopeless place it can be much harder to turn things around. Advocates support people early on, to identify what’s not working for them and to help change things for the better.

Change in policy needs to come from the top. If you believe in advocacy, tell your MP to prioritise services in your area today.