A new app has recently been launched by The Samaritans charity which will notify Twitter users if one of their followers on the site appears to be suicidal. The app, named Samaritans Rader, identifies key words and phrases, such as “depressed”, “hate myself”, “help me” and “need someone to talk to”. It then notifies users (who have signed up to the scheme) via email that someone they follow has tweeted these statements, asking whether these tweets are cause for concern.
Primarily aimed at 18-35 year olds, the app delves into our modern day obsession with documenting everything online, helping users to spot those who could potentially be depressed or suicidal. We’ve all seen twitter accounts filled with vast amounts of personal information and blunt displays of emotional honesty, so the idea that someone may post such statements online is not a hard concept to grasp. This app reminds users that such open displays of distress could be the result of poor mental health and that maybe their friend, family member or an online randomer, actually needs some help.
Now at first this may sound like an amazing idea; a great use of social media and a way for people who wish to help their followers to see tweets which they may have otherwise missed. However the app is still in its early stages and therefore, like any fledging app, it has a few flaws.
Lack of choice
There is no opt in, or opt out, choice for Twitter users. This means that unless your account is private, anyone on the internet who has decided to follow you, could sign up for Samaritans Radar and be notified of your tweets. You may be thinking, but isn’t that the whole point of the app, to get people looking out for each other, even people they don’t know on the internet? It’s true that those are the aims and wishes of the Samartians charity, however it has caused great concern amongst the online mental health community.
Open to abuse
Firstly it works on the assumption that the app will be used for good. We’ve all seen the stories of Twitter Trolls attacking people online and even in everyday life many who suffer from/ or have suffered from Mental Health problems have been on the receiving end of abuse. What’s to say that someone will not download the app to track their victims emotionally? It happens every day online already, people replying to tweets of “I feel really down” and “I can’t cope, I need help”, with abusive messages. If these people signed up for the app, they would receive updates for every such tweet put out there by anyone they’ve followed, and this could have distress effects.
I feel there is an interesting element of privilege around assuming those who use #SamaritansRadar will only use it for good.
— Emsy (@elphiemcdork) October 29, 2014
Unwanted and Intrusive
Secondly, the app is not widely accepted amongst the mental health community. Many don’t want all their followers to receive updates of these tweets, as often they have only tweeted such thoughts as a way of venting and letting out their feelings. They don’t nessacly want anyone’s help. In the case of suicidal thoughts, the person suffering cannot turn them off so receiving tweets of “it’ll get better” or “don’t do it”, would simply be considered intrusive and unhelpful. Sometimes such responses even trigger further feelings of hopelessness, as it becomes obvious that the person doesn’t understand the seriousness of the situation, especially when people tell them to simply “cheer up”.
With MH issues thoughts are often fleeting & impulsive. Unwanted intervention is more damaging if all you need is to vent. #samaritansradar
— Freya (@FuzzCookies) October 29, 2014
Fears of safety
Some even feel that their personal lives are being unwillingly opened up to the general public and fear what that entails. Not only is this a fear of a loss of privacy, but also public judgement and abuse. On top of this many are widely aware of the stigma of mental health in our society. For example when someone is discovered in public displaying signs of suicidal thoughts or behaviours, they are meant to be taken to a safe place such as a hospital. However there is frequently not enough room in hospitals for such sufferers and therefore many are simply taken back to a police cell. Certainly not a helpful, or safe environment for someone suffering from Mental Health problems. Locking someone away over night, because they experiencing mental health problems, is simply wrong; a step back towards past treatment of mental illness. Therefore there are fears of the police using the app to find and identify those in trouble in their area.
Mental illness doesn’t make what we say (even publicly) & do public property, or mean that everyone is welcome to intervene #SamaritansRadar
— Rabbit KM (@BathysphereHat) October 29, 2014
Despite its creators having the best of intentions, the app currently has too many flaws to be of much use to the mental health community. Not only has it created a united sense of fear and invasion of privacy, it also assumes that everyone who suffers from issues of mental health posts these problems online. As someone who suffers from mental health problems myself, I can testify that this is not the case for many. Who wants the world to know the extent of their private demons? Certainly not me.
Just because I tweet something, what gives you the right to harvest my tweets so you can “help” me? #SamaritansRadar
— RubyMalvolio (@RubyMalvolio) October 29, 2014
At my most ill, something like #samaritansradar could have scared me off social media, which was my only tolerable form of human contact
— Alyson (@textuallimits) October 29, 2014
In fact the overall consenus is that the app was not created to help those suffering, but instead so that those suffering can be policed and monitored. Especially after Samaritans tweeted this:
In the UK, it’s illegal to encourage suicide. In a world where communication is boundless, how do you police this? #SamaritansRadar
— Samaritans (@samaritans) October 29, 2014
Instead of policing those suffering, why not “police” the trolls who attack those suffering? Why do people feel they need to monitor their friends twitter accounts to find out if they are okay? Surely, as a friend, you should already know?
A final word
The idea behind Samaritans Radar was a well intentioned one and it’s nice to see social media being used to try and help people. Unfortunately the app needs some vast improvements. Adding ‘Opt in’ ‘Opt out’ options would be the first port of call, followed by a way for people to choose who is allowed to recieve these updates, therefore limiting loss of privacy and improving safety. It’s all about that missing element of choice, and once that has been given to Twitter users, I’m sure it will be better recieved by mental health sufferers.
What do you think of the Samaritans Radar App? A great idea or an invasion of privacy? What changes would make it better? Let us know in the comments below.