Preventing a suicide is difficult. Only by close contact with a person might we spot a warning sign in the form of a comment or action. Following the tragedy of an actual suicide, one of the more common reactions of those who knew the person is looking for that sign or symptom to provide them enough doubt to do something.
The digital age has stepped up to help with detecting warning signs for suicide. The suicide prevention organization Samaritans has launched a free app that flags alarming tweets on Twitter and sends an alert to friends.
The app, Samaritan’s Radar, is currently available for Twitter users. Once downloaded, it sends an alert to your email address when a person you follow tweets phrases indicating they may need help. Academic experts compiled a list of words and phrases commonly used during stressful times including:
In addition to flagging tweets, the UK-based organization will help contact anyone you’re concerned about 24/7. The organization stated, “Samaritans Radar is in its infancy and won’t get it right every time. It’s not good at sarcasm or jokes yet. But there’s a way for you to give feedback on whether a Samaritans Radar alert was correct, so the service improves for everyone.”
Samaritans said they built Samaritan’s Radar because they were aware that more people are using social media to talk about how they’re feeling, sometimes in the hope that someone will reach out. The app contains a special algorithm that looks for specific keywords and phrases that may indicate that someone is struggling to cope. Samaritan’s Radar then sends you an email if it thinks someone you follow might need some support. If this is the case, Samaritan’s Radar will offer you guidance on what to do next. Samaritan’s Radar can only be activated on www.samaritansradar.org. If you have questions regarding Radar, you may email them to email@example.com.
Samaritan’s Radar won’t know any personal details about you, except for your Twitter handle and email address. They don’t post to Twitter on your behalf. Samaritan’s Radar is activated discreetly and all alerts are sent to you alone, never to your Twitter friends. The people you follow won’t know you’ve signed up for it, and all alerts will be sent directly to your email address. You may delete your account at any time.
Samaritan’s Radar has a “whitelist” of Twitter handles belonging to organizations who regularly tweet using words that the app would normally flag. Samaritan’s Radar is programmed to ignore tweets from these organizations. If you would like to add an organization to the whitelist, you may email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A United Nations report released last month said the global tally of suicides is more than 800,000 annually, or one suicide every 40 seconds. The report used data from 172 countries and took 10 years to compile.
Sixty years ago, Chad Varah, Rector of St. Stephens in Walbrook, UK responded to a call involving the suicide of a young girl. Varah, a trained psychotherapist, was angered that suicide appeared to be a taboo subject among clergy and teachers; “real life issues” were not up for discussion at that time. As a result, Varah announced the opening of his office to parishioners with any kind of problem. Local women from the parish volunteered to serve tea. There was a significant response and one thing surprised Varah.
He noted that the “tea servers” with no professional or psychological training, would strike up conversation with those waiting for counseling. Very often the result would be that the crisis would pass and the parishioner would be on their way without consulting Varah. In 1953, Samaritans was born, based on the belief that the lay person is in an ideal position to befriend many of those in crisis by providing an immediate and caring response and a sympathetic ear.
The Samaritans movement eventually spread to the US with the involvement of Monica Dickens, the granddaughter of Charles Dickens, she helped establish the first American Samaritans branch in Boston in 1973 and then Cape Cod four years later.
Global suicide prevention efforts
The international spinoff of Samaritans is called Befrienders Worldwide at www.befrienders.org. Their mission statement reads, “Befrienders Worldwide’s vision is to contribute to a society where suicide is understood both locally and globally, leading to fewer deaths by suicide.” Befrienders have 169 support centers in 29 countries. They provide support by telephone, face-to-face and via outreach and the Internet.
These organizations are available to anyone 24/7 and every day of the year. Any idea that may prevent a suicide is a good idea; it will be interesting to see the response and development to Samaritan’s Radar across other digital platforms.
Written by Veronica McNamara, Sovereign Health Group writer