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.