Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Radar - Suicide Prevention?

You've probably read about it already - The Samaritans, a great mental health charity who offer a 24 hour helpline, have launched a suicide prevention app called Radar.
You can use Radar to monitor the people you follow on Twitter to identify whether or not they might be suicidal. It scans through their tweets and flags any that use key words which suggest they might be feeling that way - e.g. 'hate myself', 'help me', 'depressed'.

In theory, the idea is that you receive an email when someone you follow tweets any of the 'key words' and you are then encouraged to follow up with it, either by Direct Message or offline.

In reality, this app presents a lot of problems and borders on actually being dangerous.

There have been many arguments made against Radar since it was launched - the first number were aimed at how monitoring someone's tweets without their permission, without them even knowing was immoral, yet alone probably not legal. Well, Samaritans investigated and it turns out it is perfectly legal. Great, but it still seems to many like an invasion of privacy.
Is there such a thing as privacy online? Yes, you can make your Twitter private (and any person who doesn't have permission to view your tweets cannot monitor them) but the vast majority of us don't. Every thought we have is available to view by anyone in the world.
We're also monitored online without our consent as it is. News today reported that the Irish government request data from Facebook about the population, and I'm pretty sure I never consented to that (via
Internet monitoring is nothing new, and my problems with Radar are about how it will actually help real people with mental health difficulties.

Samaritans seem under the impression that everyone you follow on Twitter are your friends (they encourage you to follow-up with them offline if you see a worrying tweet). This is not the case at all. I probably don't know half of the people I follow in 'real life', and I'm not alone in that. Twitter allows us to connect to people we don't know, but who's views we find interesting/amusing/controversial. Now of course friends should always reach out to their friends and give them support - but often that bond of friendship is one of the most important things when reaching out.
And what this app allows is for strangers to monitor your tweets. Not all of whom might have the best intentions at heart. And this leaves it open to abuse. So I could download this app and monitor complete strangers, basically anyone who I follow on Twitter and the app scans through their tweets for me. But what happens when Radar finds a worrying tweet? Do I confront a complete stranger? Ask them are they okay? Tell them to seek help?

Radar 'offers you guidance on what to do next'. 'Trust your instincts' is one of these guidelines... My instincts tell me Radar is bad news.

I really worry that this app could make things worse for people. (We all know only too well the issues that internet trolling and bullying on for example have had, and the number of suicides attributed to that as well).
Social media, and Twitter especially, are used as forms of venting your feelings, but this is often done in the comfort of feeling you are doing so anonymously (even when that's not the reality). Many people with mental health difficulties share their feelings on Twitter and don't expect a response because they have such little value in their own self-worth and importance.

Yes it can sometimes be good to have a reply you didn't expect reminding you are not alone. At other times it could feel like an invasion of privacy by someone who just doesn't understand.
A lot of people might not want to talk to friends, yet alone strangers about their mental health. Not to mention the effect people who might be drawn to the app just to troll will have. (Do I have that little faith in humanity? Quite possibly, yes.)

And how will those who do reach out be affected by no reply, a harsh reply, or worse, a suicide?

Not long after my diagnosis with depression I wrote on Facebook about how I was feeling i.e. low, without hope, somewhat suicidal. I was then told by someone I didn't know all that well online that there was 'clearly something wrong with' me and I should go see a counselor.
Maybe this person had good intentions, like I choose to believe many Radar users will, but their comments had the complete opposite affect on me. It hurt me to hear that my illness was so obvious to everyone that I couldn't hide it. While my Facebook post was a way of me expressing my Depression and asking for help, I didn't want it from someone I didn't know.

I really do believe that friendship was a key factor in my realisation that I needed help. Comments from strangers just made me angry. As I was not long into my 1st year of University, comments from friends I had made at University also didn't have a positive impact on me; they upset me, but did not convince me I actually needed help. But I trusted the people I'd known for years when they raised concerns. My friends.

I really respect Samaritans. I think they do amazing work, and their helpline is one of the most referred to by other organisations and professionals.
But Radar asks a lot of questions that as of yet it cannot answer.

Wouldn't it have been more useful, and probably about the same cost, to educate people on how to recognise the signs in their day-to-day life? Teach people how to talk about mental health and refer on, not to Tweet strangers.
There's more to someone than their online presence. (more about this on my Social Media and Mental Health blog post). And help should be available via social interactions, and not reliant on technology.

To find out more about Radar visit:

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