Margaret Eby
October 30, 2014 2:34 pm

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for Americans. Some 40,600 suicides were reported that year, meaning that one person died from suicide in the United States every 12.9 minutes. Samaritans, a nonprofit based in the U.K., may have come up with a tool to help curtail the prevalence of suicide.

Samaritans introduced an app, Samaritans Radar, that monitors social media sites for terms that indicate distress, and can notify Twitter users if someone they follow appears to be in distress. The algorithm looks for phrases like “hate myself,” “tired of being along,” “depressed,” and “help me,” and asks whether they are cause for concern.

There are flaws in the app. It can’t, for example, detect sarcasm. And some have noted that it might be potential breach of privacy. As The Guardian’s Anouchka Grose pointed out, the app can’t yet tell the difference between your real friends and your, you know, social media friends—those people who may not want to be on your radar. But Samaritans executive director of policy, research and development Joe Ferns assured the BBC that the idea wasn’t to invade anyone’s privacy or monitor people’s thoughts, just point out tweets you might see anyway.

“Imagine that a friend had posted something in the early hours of the morning, you’re on the way to work or college and your Twitter feed is full of messages that are arguably less important – Samaritans Radar gives you the opportunity to see that tweet again and have it highlighted to you,” Ferns said. “It’s not looking over your shoulder, it’s not looking at anything that’s private, it’s just giving you the opportunity to see something and act on it.”

Another concern for some users is that those who might respond to a person’s cries for help might not be the best equipped to handle the situation. Samaritans, however, does offer guidelines for helping someone online (it’s actually something everyone should read) and the organization’s also open to suggestions from users about how to improve the process.

The app may not be the perfect solution yet, but it’s a step. Having someone looking out for you in that great big sea of social media, where cries of distress are sometimes hard to catch in time, could make a huge difference—even it’s just for one person.

(Images via and Shutterstock)

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