Content Note: Discussion of mental health crises including references to self-harm and destructive mental states.
This post is about the app Samaritans Radar. For more (and better) reading on various aspects, try these:
The Samaritans Radar app – the problem is right there in the name. – Emsy @ EmsyBlog (perspective from a former Samaritans volunteer)
Samaritans Radar – serious privacy concerns raised @ Information Rights And Wrongs
Killing with Kindness; #SamaritansRadar and paternalistic abelism – Jemima @ Sometimes it’s just a cigar
I do not consent to #SamaritansRadar – stavvers @ Another angry woman
Mr Sam and his magical radar booth @ purplepersuasion
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I can get quite personal on this blog, revealing some things that I am very cautious about, and there is a constant play in my mind between wanting to use personal candour to discuss wider political or social issues, on the one hand, and the constant fear that if some abusive person goes through my writings, will they learn the exact emotional pressure points to use to demolish me?
I tend towards personal candour, despite the fear. The feared abuser has yet to materialise and maybe never will.
So much so that if I have mental health wobbles or crises, I might well choose to mention them in a blog post here.
In general, if a crisis in my depression emerges then, in growing severity of the crisis, my chosen lifelines are: blogging about it; talking to closest and most trusted friends and/or family members; going to my GP and (if it’s really really serious) getting medication.
The important thing for me is that I have control over these aspects. In particular, I get to choose how widely my crisis is known, and if it’s limited, then by whom. I can be as shielded or as vulnerable as I choose to be, and I can choose for myself who is best placed to give me the type of support I need for a specific situation.
One thing I don’t do, is tweet about it. I could set my twitter account so that every follower has to be approved by me, but it feels self-defeating to do this. I’m pretty naive about “brand building”, so my account is somewhere between personal micro blog and promoting platform for my writing. My followers include all of 3 people whom I would trust with my vulnerable moments and expect to be able to provide practical, meaningful help (and they are all people who fall into the close friends/family group anyway). The others are a couple of other platform-builders, one or two who followed after I retweeted something of theirs, and a few bloggers/web personalities I read and interact with (or have done in the past) at least semi-regularly. As trusting as I may be of this latter group, I still would not view them as a source of support.
So in many ways it seems a little bit of a “not my fight” to be worried about the Samaritans Radar app that has had many people on twitter (including those in the last category above) up in arms. It’s unlikely that I’m going to be affected it. Nevertheless, when I heard of it and read the official blurb, I felt a chill run down my spine.
It’s not okay to allow people to spy on other people, for any reason. It is, in fact, downright creepy. Even when it is done with the best intentions (and as many have pointed out, not everyone on the internet has good intentions towards those they follow/stalk).
To me, this felt like the cyber equivalent of sitting with a morose face (maybe even a tear running down my face) and some random person I vaguely know coming up, sitting beside me, and putting an arm around my shoulder, leaning in and saying, “You know we care for you, mate?”
I have only one reaction to that invasion: shrug off their arm, hiss, yell or otherwise angrily communicate, “Leave me alone!” – and then get away and HIDE, feeling far worse and far more threatened than I did before. That, to me, is the sort of thing that could tip me from stable into unstable/capable of self-harming (not actual suicide, but acts that build towards it).
Samaritans Radar is fucking SCARY to me. It negates my personhood and agency in dealing with my own illness.
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People like me, who are aware of their mental health issues, maybe are not really the people this is most intended to save from suicide, though? Maybe it’s people who are encountering these issues for the first time, who haven’t even got a label to put on the devastating emotional crisis they face, let alone had a chance to develop support networks and internal tools to manage and survive it. I can certainly see that these people might well act differently than I would, or the people who have complained. Maybe these people would use the trigger phrases on twitter, letting their extended friend circle (most people can functionally maintain around 150 connections maximum – I forget the technical term for this limit, but it’s well-known in social science research) know that something is going wrong, and maybe support is needed.
Okay. So maybe this person might have been helped. But I remember what I was like when I was in that place, and help was still hard to accept, especially when it wasn’t specifically asked for. Certainly, the “support” and “help” that a friend or acquaintance could offer (who wasn’t in my innermost circle) would be woefully inadequate, and counterproductive – again, based on remembering what I was like before I had a diagnosis and some tools and a framework to understand what was happening to me.
While Samaritans volunteers are well-trained (the reply I got when my email concerning Samaritans Radar originally went to a local office was a classic of person-centred counselling language and caring, for example) the average twitter user, who might use this app, does not have the experience or training to give effective support. They probably have very little if any training or understanding of how to avoid othering mental health sufferers (again, I lived through this, this is my lived experience of well-meaning “help”) and their interventions might very well make sufferers feel more isolated as they feel their friends treat them differently, making a “special case” of them. Seeing the illness, not the person.
This is why I am very careful who gets to know when I am having bad episodes. Platitudes can only go so far before they become an extra burden.
And because this person has no idea who is using the app, and no way to veto an individual from checking up on them, zie has no way to avoid a barrage of such “help” or limit it to a few most trusted individuals. They will get “support” from whoever wants to give it, in whatever form, and regardless of how constructive or detrimental that is for their specific situation and crisis.
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I, personally, wouldn’t use twitter in a way that would make the app effective. But even without that, the idea that someone who follows me might be using it, stifles my free expression. I do not want some remark I make (that may or may not actually be relevant to the app’s purpose) to single me out as “needing help”. I want to be able to be angry, upset, even depressed, and speak about it, without worrying who’s taking an (unhealthy) interest in my emotional state. I don’t want to watch my words. Twitter has become a regular part of my social media outlet precisely because if I feel the need, I can let off a thoughtless 140-character rant about whatever has me riled or rattled. I don’t use it for real crises, but a heartfelt yell into the void after a hard day or whatever? Perfect. Samaritans Radar feels like a threat to that. It sends out a signal, “watch what you say”.
I am reminded of the (Classic Who) Doctor Who story “The Happiness Patrol”, set on a planet where feeling sad is outlawed (and punishable by drowning in sweet goo). In order for it to be okay to be sad, one must keep it a secret. One Happiness Patrol agent pretends to be a fellow sad person, offers support, only to dob in the sad person to the authorities. As the Doctor concludes, “There are no other colours, without the blues”.
Depression and mental health issues are not, of course, “feeling sad”, but the resemblance is in the enforced happiness lest you be singled out as “needing help” and attract attention that leads to you being drowned in sweet paternalistic “help”.