The Samaritans Radar App Tracks People With Emotional Disorders On Twitter (And Possibly Puts Them At Risk)

There’s a new app out called Samaritans Radar, offered by UK mental health charity Samaritans, that allows users to sign up to have their friends’ Twitter accounts monitored for words and phrases like “suicide,” “tired of being alone,” “hate myself, “depressed,” and “help me.” The app then sends the user a notification so that they can respond to their friend.

It’s a really, really nice idea at heart. But it’s flawed, and people are speaking out about it. The basic problem is this, as this blogger who has Lupus and deals with mental health issues points out:

You might also be thinking “What’s the big deal; they’d see your Tweets if they follow you anyway.” It’s the idea of being monitored by strangers for what they perceive as signs of suicidal ideation, who are then prompted by an app on what steps to take.

The fact that the tweets in question are public is irrelevant — it’s about being tracked without the app getting your explicit permission. If you’re depressed and you want help in this way, this app could be useful, if only it allowed you to opt in. Instead, it takes the patronizing stance that Samaritans and strangers on Twitter know what kind of help you should receive.

I am a big-huge-gigantic advocate for letting mental health patients have control over their care. Most mental health patients are only episodically unwell enough to not be able to make decisions for themselves, and this kind of patronizing attitude toward mental health, the one that says, “You are depressed, therefore you are automatically unable to function well enough to take care of yourself,” is incredibly disempowering.

I know what I need when I’m episodic: I need for people who I know very, very well, who I trust, who have proven themselves to be consistent presences in my life, and who I have talked to ahead of time about how to handle my PTSD episodes, to talk to me and let me say whatever I’m feeling without censoring myself until I can calm down. It is entirely possible (although I’d like to think not likely at this point) that during an episode I could tweet something about how I’m feeling that would trigger an alert on the app. If that tweet showed up in my normal feed, it might have context enough to dissuade a follower from panicking. Viewed through the lens of Samaritans Radar, it would be seen as an emergency to which they need to respond. The last thing I need is panicking, platitudes, and clichés: That is proven, in my experience, to be tremendously unhelpful. It’s that deep knowledge of my experience as a person with emotional disorders, resulting from years of work with my doctors and my support network, that I need when I’m episodic — not blanket-type prescriptions from an app applied by people I don’t actually know.

Ultimately, Samaritans Radar feels to me, as a person with emotional disorders, like it serves to make the people who orbit around people with mental health issues emotionally safe and secure, like they’re doing the right thing, like they’re responsible, good people. It doesn’t actually make ME feel emotionally safe and secure. It makes me feel followed and watched, and that’s coincidentally a feature of my PTSD that I struggle with a lot without this app making it convenient for untrained people whose trustworthiness has not been proven to track my mental health without my permission.

And there’s another thing — say you’re the kind of degraded soul who trolls people who have mental health issues (it happens — Robin Williams’ daughter got harassed off of Twitter because he committed suicide). What stops you from following people who have mental health problems and using the app to try to urge them into suicide? In one thread on Twitter, a user suggested that Samaritans “will be able to handle” inappropriate use of the app, but the problem is that they won’t even be prompted to handle it until it’s already happened, and the stakes in that situation are too high if we’re talking about mental health and suicide. Samaritans’ own answer is fluff that doesn’t even address the issue.

That alone could have a chilling effect on users’ willingness to even talk about mental health on Twitter. There are enough reasons not to already (stigma not being the least of them), and we desperately need to start having open and honest and compassionate conversations about mental health that respect patients and do not put them at risk. Samaritans Radar, without an opt-in, fails to do both of those things.

[BBC News]
[Samaritans]
[Life of a Lupie]
[Salon]
[Twitter]

[h/t Twitter user stillicides]

[Image via Samaritans]

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