The Samaritans Radar app – the problem is right there in the name.

**This entry is about the Samaritans Twitter app and has brief references to stalking and suicide**

It’s always been assumed that in large organisations, the higher-ups don’t really know what the lower-downs are doing and decisions often get made that leaves those who do the work shaking their heads at what’s going on.

Full disclosure: I used to be a Samaritans volunteer. I worked on the phone line, the email and face to face. I did this for roughly three years. Samaritan volunteers get very good training on how to do their job.

Today the Samaritans released information about a new app – the Samaritans Radar. It’s designed to monitor the tweets from the people the app-user follows on Twitter and flags up any Tweets with specific key words and phrases  that might be concerning, and reports them to the app-user. At first glance a nice way to make sure your friends are ok and to make sure you don’t miss any tweets from them that means they might be in trouble.

I am a former Samaritan volunteer and I do not like this app at all.

I will always defend Samaritan volunteers. They do amazing work and it’s the sort of thing that you really don’t know what it’s like until you do it. It isn’t easy, it takes a certain kind of person to be a Sam and you cannot do it to boost your own ego – you become very humbled very quickly. This is why I’ve come to the conclusion that there may have been little to no consultation with the volunteers before this app appeared.

Let’s look at it from the point of view not of the app-user, but the tweeter being monitored. The app itself is called the “Radar” app, and even in the name gives connotations of being watched, being monitored.  How likely are you to tweet about your mental health problems if you know some of your followers would be alerted every time you did? Do you know all your followers? Personally? Are they all friends? What if your stalker was a follower? How would you feel knowing your every 3am mental health crisis tweet was being flagged to people who really don’t have your best interests at heart, to put it mildly? In this respect, this app is dangerous. It is terrifying to think that anyone can monitor your tweets, especially the ones that disclose you may be very vulnerable at that time.

From the perspective of an ex-volunteer, I find it baffling that the concept of choice has been completely taken away. Samaritans was always about choice. Choice to talk, choice to take action or not, even down to the choice to end your life or not. Sams never judged, they listened. This is the opposite of that. This takes away the choice of the tweeter to seek help themselves. This is so far away from the whole ethos of Samaritans, that we are there for people to come to us. While the app has no literal connection to the Samaritans service – it flags it up to the app-user, not to the Samaritans service directly – it still removes choice.

And the bottom line is, monitoring people’s tweets is just not a good idea. At all.

This is why I’ve come to the conclusion that the people who do the listening had very little to do with this. Because they would not have liked it. I will always stand up for Samaritan volunteers and the fact this app is doing something like this in their name makes me angry, and worried that it will effect what people think of the service. Samaritans are amazing people, please don’t let what’s happened today influence your opinion of the service they offer. The people in Samaritans who are responsible for developing this app NEED to read people’s reactions and they need to take swift action. The thought that this could damage their reputation breaks my heart. They need to fix this.

Please note that the Samaritans Radar app is not connected to the volunteers that man the phones 24 hours a day.

Please do not let the arrival of this app stop you from using the phone line to talk to a trained and experienced volunteer listener.

Samaritans is a 24-hour phone line for who are in crisis and need to talk. There are call charges but you can ask to be called back.

08457 90 90 90

Thank you to the people I follow on Twitter for identifying the ways this app can be very dangerous.

**Opinions stated in this blog are mine and do not represent the opinions of Samaritans or their volunteers**

(Blog updated to edit that the phone number is not free)

23 Comments on “The Samaritans Radar app – the problem is right there in the name.”

  1. pixie359 says:

    Reblogged this on pixie359 and commented:
    I am distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of a system to alert people to any mental health related terms that I have not consented to.

    I would be supportive of an opt-in system, where people who might know they are likely to have crisis moments might set something up to alert certain trusted friends and family, and having Samaritan volunteers contactable through twitter in the first instance makes a lot of sense.

    I strongly suspect that this is a very well intentioned, but very poorly thought through system.

    • Charles mccaughey says:

      Totally agree with this sentiment. I have been involved as a therapist and trainer for many years in County Durham and the North East and have trained hundreds of people in interventions in suicide.(ASIST) I believe we need more and more trained and willing people able to help those in distress – we also need to tackle stigma so that people in distress feel safe in having a named person or persons they can trust to talk to when times get tough. I have many reservations about this app. They have grown since I read through the introductions available. At Chester le Street and Durham City Mind we established a text helpline many years ago which has since been duplicated by other agencies. All the staff who respond to texts are highly trained and experienced people. More resources should be put into training and awareness so that we all feel safe in asking for and responding to cries for help rather than a ‘policing’ method and untrained response.

  2. Jonny D says:

    Have you spoken to Samaritan’s about this?

    In general, if you really feel something is important, then start by doing something about it directly. That’s the fastest and most effective way of effecting change. That would be the first step before blogging about it so you can include that detail in the post!

    • Emsy says:

      I’ve had a conversation on Twitter about it but me talking to them on Twitter means I’m just a voice. I’ve had hundreds of hits on this post. That’s a bigger voice.

  3. TK says:

    The app was designed by a Samaritans volunteer, tested by other Samaritans volunteer, and trialled by lots of people before the national organisation agreed to take it on and release it. My understanding is that it is designed to avoid those horrible occasions when people die and, when their friends look back at their communications, they realise they were trying to ask for help but never got it. I’m not saying your concerns are wrong – just pointing out that your assumption that this was created by the people ‘at the top’ is not correct.

    • Emsy says:

      That then makes it all the more worrying to me.

    • Doremus says:

      My understanding is that it is designed to avoid those horrible occasions when people die and, when their friends look back at their communications, they realise they were trying to ask for help but never got it.

      And that appears to be one of the problems with the app – that it was designed from the perspective of bereaved friends, not the actual users at risk of suicide.

      • Charles mccaughey says:

        Agree – developments for suicide intervention should indeed be with those with ‘lived experience’ – I’m currently developing a training programme where those with lived experience (thoughts and ultimately actions) about suicide are central to the training design.

  4. I understand your concerns, but it should be pointed out that absolutely nothing is private on Twitter – anything you tweet is visible to the whole world – which is why so many people get into trouble by ill-advised remarks on Twitter. It is possible to get software that downloads tweets live from Twitter on hashtags or whatever. The moment you send out a tweet – there’s your privacy gone.

    It’s also not quite true that the only way Samaritans gets contacted is where the caller contacts us – I am also a volunteer, and periodically we do shifts out on the streets (on a Friday evening). In those shifts we approach people and ask them how they are, rather than wait for them to come to us ( “Festival” branch that has tents at pop festivals and the like operate in a similar manner).

    I tried out the app in a pilot study but I’m afraid I don’t follow enough people for it to be able to do much. I got two “alerts” – one was from a fellow Samaritan who was tweeting about suicide prevention. The other one was a tweet that said “I want to kill myself”. However in the context it was an ironic comment immediately following a tweet that said “Having just watched Ed Milliband’s speech at the Labour party conference…” ! However, had the person really been suicidal, I don’t think they would have minded if I’d tweeted a PM saying “You sound like you’re in a bad way – can I help?” As far as I can see there would be no reason to say “My Samaritans Radar app picked this up” After all I do follow the person so if active on Twitter, I’d have seen it myself anyway and probably offered support.

    I don’t know if you are aware of this but Facebook also have a policy where if you think one of your “friends” is in danger of suicide you can notify them – if this is done in the UK, Facebook can refer the person to the Samaritans – I can’t remember in this case if FB get the Samaritans to make the first call.

    • Emsy says:

      Nothing on Twitter is private, but that doesn’t mean you give consent to be monitored. There needs to be a way to give consent to be monitored by the app. I have a Twitter timeline full of people with experience of MH issues who are angry and terrified about this app. It’s a big assumption to say that those who will use it will only use it for good purposes.

      When I volunteered Samaritans was all about giving choice to the service user. This removes that choice. Tweeting about how you feel is not always a cry for help. This app assumes it is.

      • Ephiny says:

        I think it’s not the ‘monitoring’ that is the biggest issue (since yes of course Twitter is public and anyone can already search for whatever terms they want) but the fact that untrained amateurs are being strongly encouraged to offer mental health support to random strangers on the internet. That seems like a bizarre thing for a reputable organisation like the Samaritans to be promoting, as even the well-intentioned could surely do more harm than good if they don’t know the appropriate way to respond to someone in distress, and as we all know, not all social media users are at all well-intentioned. There’s a well-known problem of ‘trolls’ abusing others, including sending anonymous death threats, rape threats etc just because they disagree with someone’s views or find them annoying, or just because they think it’s funny to terrorize someone like that. I don’t think we need to be giving these people ideas and a convenient tool to amuse themselves at the expense of vulnerable people.

        It also sounds like they really just don’t understand how Twitter works, that they think it’s like Facebook where you have an approved list of friends who see your profile. Twitter is public and followers can be (and often are) complete strangers who you have no relationship with at all. This is very badly thought through, and I can’t see what the point of it is, other than to get some publicity and hence donations for the charity?

      • TK says:

        I definitely see your point, and I hope they’re taking into account that the way they’ve presented it seems to have made lots of people very worried. They need to sort this out, because increasing emotional distress is completely the opposite of what they are meant to be doing. Having said that though, by posting tweets without making them ‘private’ automatically opts you into people being allowed to scan them and use the information as they like (one reason why I don’t tweet any more!) Just try tweeting about weight loss or teeth, and see how many diet companies and private dentists with tooth-whitening offers contact you – sometimes, within minutes.

        This app does nothing different to what millions of private companies already do – setting words and phrases they’re interested in, and setting up alerts so that they can see who is talking about those things. People using Twitter have already agreed to this happening – what is worrying is how many people don’t know that’s the case (in relation to the ‘stalkers could find this or be alerted to me feeling low’ etc) Twitter needs to be far more open about how data put onto their servers can, and is, used.

      • I don’t agree that the app “assumes” that tweeting about how you feel is a cry for help. It simply alerts you that there is a potential cry for help – if I’d read such a thing without the help of an app because I “follow” that person anyway I’d think that maybe they want to talk and maybe I’d offer support. I don’t quite see what you mean about removal of choice – are not Festival branch also removing the choice by going up to people and asking them how they are? Is it wrong to make an unsolicited offer of support to someone you think might be in need of it? And they still have the choice to say “no thanks”.

        The point where I would agree with you is that there is a risk that those who use the app are not going to use it for good purposes. That had not occurred to me and it is a good point. There are enough trolls around who might use it to victimise people with MH problems. I don’t know what safeguards there are to prevent that from happening.

    • Thabo Mophiring says:

      I am sorry but just because I have conversations in public does not mean you have the right to harass me for my own protection.
      that argument like some of the guilty profs work seems to think talking about mental illness is the actual sin. In his view it normalises suicide.
      The end goal really is to regulate how mentally ill talk in public under pretense of caring.
      that people who should have high ethical standards actually use that tweets are public line is shocking. A look at the EU data protection rules would also tell you it is a defence that will not stand up in court

  5. ruralrover says:

    Reblogged this on the counselling blog and commented:
    I was going to write about my concerns with the Samaritans Radar, however this covers the issues far better than I could have.

  6. […] But that’s assuming all replies to Twitter users WOULD be well-meaning, which is the point of former Samaritans volunteer Emsy’s blog post: not all followers are followed back. They’re not all trusted friends, and there is the […]

  7. […] out of suicide. It listens, nothing more, in a world where listening can be rare and saves lives. There is an excellent post here by a former Sam which explores their reservations in full. A comment under the post by  @elphiemcdork caught my […]

  8. […] 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 […]

  9. […] For me, it comes down to choice. A former Samaritans volunteer wrote in a blog post: […]

  10. […] For me, it comes down to choice. A former Samaritans volunteer wrote in a blog post: […]

  11. […] Former Samaritans volunteer @elphiemcdork: The Samaritans Radar app – the problem is right there in the name. […]

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