Tech industry taking action for suicide prevention

  • techUK techUK
    Friday20May 2016

    Tech industry are taking action in collaboration with charities & expert help for suicide prevention, reflects techUK's Skye MacLeod for Mental Health Awareness Week

Tech industry are taking action in collaboration with charities & expert help for suicide prevention

Suicide is a universal issue and is devastating for families and communities. In the UK nearly 6000 people every year take their own life[1] with the highest suicide rate for males and females in their 40s.[2] Parity of esteem between mental health and physical health in real terms is therefore essential in tackling this universal issue.

The online world offers opportunities for people to learn, create and communicate. The explosion in new products and services, from MOOCs to messaging, and from gaming to helping with homework, provides prospects for creativity and self-expression for people to seize upon. However, the online environment carries with it some challenges and there is quite rightly concern regarding the negative issues such as pro-suicide forums and suicide advocacy and encouragement.

Industry has taken a considered response in how to tackle this issue and interrupt the online journey to a positive rather than negative outcome. In collaboration with charities and expert help in the suicide prevention space, technology can provide information without judgement, direct individuals to expert help, enable positive engagement with others, and help people in recovery. Indeed, recent academic reports in this area highlight the potential for leveraging technology and social media for public health interventions and to create online spaces that are positive and inspiring.[3]

UK tech industry has a track record of working together with government, law enforcement, educators, and wider players to enable the UK to take a global leadership role in addressing some of the most challenging issues of the internet age. Tech companies are working individually and in collaboration to sensitively tackle this difficult topic as evidenced in the below (non-exhaustive) examples:

This year Facebook is rolling out a new feature across the UK to help users who feel suicidal. The Suicide Prevention tool has been developed in connection with UK charity Samaritans and aims to try and provide advice and support for those struggling to cope, as well as for their friends and family. Versions of the tool have already been launched in the US and in Australia and people can now report posts they are worried about in a more direct way.

Since November 2010 Google has partnered with the Samaritans to launch a new search feature, publicising the Samaritans helpline details through the ‘Google One Box’ when users make a suicide-related search online. This search feature encourages people to get help from a safe source, rather than from other distressed people or malicious websites.[4] Other search engines such as Yahoo and Bing signpost to expert help through the top displayed search results such as the charities Mind, Reach Out, as well as expert medical help like the National Health Service.

Another example is when a person searches the blog site Tumblr for tags which could be indicative of a mental health crisis. These tags could include words such as ‘depressed,’ ‘suicidal’ or ‘hopeless’, and the individuals are redirected to a message that begins with ‘Everything OK?’ and includes information and links to resources for support.

Family friendly network level filtering are available and provided by the four main Internet Service Providers (ISPs). These filters provide options for filtering references to suicide and self-harm, to the extent that they do not intrude on issues of personal data. UK industry collaborate with organisations such as the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), and have been working hard to ensure that these family friendly network level filters do not over-block and limit access to suicide prevention or support websites. Information regarding how to set up these filters is available on Internet Matters, a not-for-profit organisation created by the four ISPs (BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media) and also supported by Google and the BBC, which also signposts to expert organisations such as YoungMinds, Selfharm UK, the Mental Health Foundation, and the National Self-Harm Network.

Fundamentally, this is a wider social challenge that does not start or end with one initiative – there is no silver bullet. As evidenced, industry is vigilant to challenges and opportunities raised by new products and services and is taking action in collaboration with charities and expert help to interrupt the online journey to a positive rather than negative outcome. With current concerns over funding for mental health services, where mental ill-health accounts for 28% of the total burden of disease but mental health trusts receive just 13% of the NHS’s budget,[5] education and support must remain central to our response to this issue.

[1] Office for National Statistics, Suicides in the United Kingdom, 2013 Registrations, 2015

[2] Samaritans, Suicide Statistics Report 2015 

[3] University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, Social Media Use Associated With Depression Among U.S. Young Adults, 2016 and Parent Zone, The Perfect Generation: Is the Internet Undermining Young People's Mental Health? 2016

[4] Samaritans Scotland, Taking the lead to reduce suicide

[5] The Guardian, NHS mental health funding is still lagging behind, says report, 2016

This insight is published during Mental Health Awareness Week 2016.

techUK has also recently responded to Parliamentary Online Suicide Prevention Summit Call for Evidence.

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