Risks in using social media to spot signs of mental distress

January 09, 2015

News Type:  Weekly Spark, Weekly Spark News

The New York Times

Samaritans, a British suicide prevention organization, recently introduced a Twitter app that it hoped would encourage people to respond to signs of depression or suicidality in their social media contacts. “Samaritans Radar” alerted users when someone they followed on Twitter posted messages containing specific phrases that might be cause for concern. However, public objection to the possible unintended effects of Samaritans Radar led the organization to withdraw the app in order to consult further with experts, a review process that is still ongoing. In spite of the potential of social media data to reveal important patterns in mental health, psychiatrists and others have urged caution about disseminating tools that seem to have diagnostic power to untrained consumers. “You would be mislabeling millions of people,” said Dr. Allen J. Frances, a psychiatrist at Duke University School of Medicine. He also suggested that apps such as Samaritans Radar might be inappropriately used by employers or insurers to discriminate on the basis of perceived mental illness.

Spark Extra! TEAM Up has created social media guidelines for suicide prevention, with recommendations for organizations and individuals.