The Samaritans Radar – when resilience goes wrong?

Over the past few weeks (and ongoing in some circles) there has been a bit of a storm about an initiative launched by the charity The Samaritans which in some ways you could tie to building greater individual/community resilience. The initiative was called Samaritans Radar and you can find out a bit more about it here:

Well as it turns out, not that much more given they closed the initiative due to public pressure.

So what was it? The site used the tagline of “turning your social net into a safety net” and it was basically a Twitter app that filtered through the tweets of everyone you follow to look for trigger words/phrases that might indicate early stages of stress/depression/mental ill health. The idea being that if “friends” are alerted at an early stage, they are more likely to get in contact early and prevent escalation of a problem. Real early stage intervention stuff.

Now try googling it for some of the debate and discussion on this. People were not happy. Words like “spying” “unethical” “dangerous” “meddling do-gooders” so on and so forth.

I’m definitely not wise enough to tell you whether it was a good idea or a bad idea, but what struck me through all of the discussion was how neatly it could fit principles of resilience. It:

– encourage social interaction where otherwise it might not take place (not only increasing the likelihood of conversation but also potentially bridging between people suffering from an issue and people who aren’t)
– it levered different resources to combat an issue (non-users of the charity rather than trained volunteers/professionals)
– it diversified the role of the charity (moving from not only a direct provider of support but a potential broker of alternative support)

So what went wrong? If you’re reading this you’ll no doubt have a your own views(!), but I think this is a classic case of trying to catalyse community resilience where it was already happening naturally, and the dangers of over engineering. In reality Samaritans didn’t need to create anything, the radar already existed! It was (and is) called Twitter, Facebook, Linked-In (whatever you use) and they already increase the likelihood of picking up health issues amongst friends in an organic and imperfect way. The Samaritans app, if nothing else, highlighted where relationships DIDN’T exist, and as such scared people that very personal information could be analysed and acted upon by people with no connection to them.

So on reflection, i think the radar failed on the first principle, because while it encouraged interactions to take place, it was too crude to build relationships which is where resilience on such a sensitive topic flourishes.

I think this is really important. As public services look more and more towards ways of unlocking community capacity there’ll be a temptation to piggy back on ways of scaling this capacity as quickly as possible, and in doing so could do a lot more damage than good because they’ll be based on what the public service wants to achieve, not on how people interact with each other. People like helping each other out, but they don’t like being forced to help, or be helped. Creating the conditions for the choice to take place – well that to me seems like the secret ingredient.

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One Response to The Samaritans Radar – when resilience goes wrong?

  1. alisonblackwood says:

    I think Alex is right about this Samaritans’ app being insensitive. The type of relationships created on Twitter are totally unlike the type of relationship and interaction needed to provide support on such a sensitive issue as mental health (there are currently a number of campaigns highlighting the stigma people with mental health problems face e.g. ). The controversy also raises a lot of questions about social media and your human right to privacy (a legal right enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998). I’ve just been reading a really interesting fictional example of the benefits and problems in Dave Eggers new book “The Circle”, which I could go on and on about.
    However, I have used Twitter myself to analyse how many people in London mentioned the word “bedroom tax” in their tweets, which provided me with some useful information about when people started becoming aware, and /or noticing the effects, of new Government policy around this welfare reform. I don’t feel this stigmatised people nor violated their right to privacy – I only reported numbers and maintained anonymity.
    And, although my main focus is working to support community resilience, I have had a lot of conversations in the council about the link between individual and community resilience. Would the Samaritans app have been so bad if it had alerted the “Tweeter” themselves to the fact that their tweets included more suicide-associated words than usual. And would that be a way of supporting people to get help themselves at an earlier stage, without stigmatising them or abusing their privacy?
    To be honest, I’m not sure.


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