Samaritans Radar, suicide prevention and the limits of social networking

When the suicide-prevention organization Samaritans launched a Twitter app Oct. 29, they called it “an online safety net.” The Samaritans Radar app scans tweets from accounts a user is following, looking for phrases that may indicate a person is at risk for suicide. Once the risk is identified, the app alerts the subscriber via email, sharing the cause for concern and suggestions for reaching out and offering support.

Since then, the backlash the group has faced from both those concerned about privacy and mental health professionals has led them to suspend the app. Some feel the app is counterproductive, possibly interrupting connections to other (and more effective) sources of support. Others worry it divorces caring communication from the context of actual relationship. It also threatens to place a tremendous burden of responsibility (and liability) on people who may not be well-equipped for it.

Suicide prevention has always been a delicate art, with stakes that couldn’t be higher. In a virtually connected world, vigilance is both easier and more complex. On the one hand, this app may save a life. On the other, it may cause a nuisance or, worse, overwhelm people in distress with clumsy efforts at care from people they don’t really know.

That is perhaps the most striking revelation in this controversy: the reminder that many of our “friends” are not really friends. Samaritans reminds us, “In a perfect world, you wouldn’t miss these tweets.” What perfect world? One where we did more listening than talking through social media? One in which our virtual networks were the same manageable size as our physical ones? One where friendship was reserved for those allowed to interrupt our lives?

In his story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus made the point that everyone is our neighbor - our circle of obligation is wide. When we rub shoulders (literally or virtually) with others, as Christians we assume some moral responsibility for them and our impact on them. The people we follow and attract in social media are our neighbors, as are the people we interact with “in real life." All of the passersby in Jesus’ story noticed the traveler in need; the first difference was that the Samaritan decided to stop and allow his life to be interrupted by that need. In our world, it’s easy to not even notice; noticing is required in all meaningful encounters, not only in social media.

The very need for an app supporting conversational vigilance points to one possible reason mental illness and suicide are on the rise throughout much of the world. In an age of constant connection, we are increasingly disconnected from genuine relationship. In a world of easy “friendship,” the speed of communication overwhelms us. We can’t help but miss cries for help and expressions of despair from those in our sphere of responsibility.

Our spheres themselves may be larger than we can actually take responsibility for. There is a certain flippancy in taking on so many connections that we can’t actually fulfill our most basic responsibilities toward people we call friends and claim to “follow.” It’s the ultimate loneliness scenario - surrounded by people but truly connected to none of them.

One of the most basic needs of people with mental illness is the presence of neighbors - the kind of neighbors who do as the Good Samaritan did. Good neighboring requires true relationship, openness, a pace of life that allows for noticing and willingness to make true connection. There’s no app for that.

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Thanks for your thoughts, Amy. You made me think of this passage from “On Christian Doctrine,” by Augustine: “All people are to be loved equally; but since you cannot be of service to everyone, you have to take greater care of those who are more closely joined to you by a turn, so to say, of fortune’s wheel, whether by occasion of place of time, or any other such circumstance.” (1.28.29) This makes me reflect further on the parable of the Good Samaritan: is Jesus’ point that EVERYONE is my neighbor? Or is it that the injured man deserved help from those who were in close proximity to him?

This is where social media, I think, can deceive us, for the question of “proximity” is collapsed by the speed of communication, as you note. So are all my Facebook friends REALLY my neighbors? I can’t help but feeling guilty when I see someone’s life falling apart on social media; but should I? Thanks for helping us think through these issues.

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