Can a specialized social network really combat suicide?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on June 4, 2014

From The News Desk

What’s the most disheartening moment in a young entrepreneur’s life? Perhaps that moment where you think you’re building a fun, light-hearted social network and slowly realize that all your users are suicidal.

At least, that’s the experience Australian founder Jake McKeon had with his app Moodswing. He built it in the hopes of creating a “Twitter for moods” where people could go to share their emotional statuses. But with an app built for feelings, it didn’t take long for the darker side of things to emerge.

People started turning to Moodswing to confide feelings of insecurity, doubt, and depression, with the occasional suicide threat thrown in the mix. McKeon claims he wasn’t upset to see his app take that turn — he was just concerned that his users weren’t connected with the resources they needed in that moment.

After one particular instance, when a woman posted increasingly depressed messages, eventually writing a status that she was feeling "suicidal." McKeon reached out via chat, listened to her sorrows, and referred her to professional help.

The experience made McKeon realize it was time for a product pivot. If emotional support was what his users needed, emotional support was what they’d get.

He began brainstorming and settled on building a network of pseudo-professional support. He would onboard college and graduate students studying psychology, who could chat with Moodswing users as a way to practice therapy. When someone posted something negative, they would automatically get prompted by the app with the question “Do you want to talk to someone?” If they answered yes, they would then be matched with a psychology student volunteering to chat to such people.

McKeon says he plans to vet such students via a case study questionnaire, sort of a multiple choice “How would you handle this situation?” survey. He hopes that students will want to take part of the kindness of their own heart, and because it gives them experience they can use to try to land internships or initial jobs in psychology or therapy.

Moodswing is looking to crowdfund the $50,000 needed to build the chat portion of the app and start recruiting potential support. With twenty days to go, he’s raised almost a third of the goal.

If this sounds like a half-baked idea with potentially terrible repercussions, that’s because it is. The number of ways this could go wrong is practically limitless. A psychology student who is actually a sociopath tells a depressed user to go kill themselves. A psychology student is chatting to someone suicidal when all of a sudden they get distracted because they run into the cute guy from Psych 101 and grab coffee with him. Suicidal person is abandoned on the platform and kills themselves. A psychology student, who is after all a student, not a licensed professional, offers bad advice and a user gets worse. A rape victim is talking to a supporter who then asks her on a date.

These are, duh, exaggerated worse case scenario situations, but the fact remains that a network of “support” made up of barely vetted strangers could potentially be more harmful than no network at all. Not to mention the liability such negative outcomes could subject McKeon and his company Moodswing to.

McKeon disagrees. “It’s better to have something where before there were no resources,” McKeon says.

In that, he has a point. For all the worst-case scenarios I can imagine, there’s plenty of good you could fathom coming out of a system like this — assuming McKeon can successfully onboard enough psychology students, which seems like a monumental task. The majority of MoodSwing users — those not paired with the sociopath psych students that is — would probably benefit from having someone to talk to when they’re feeling down, even if that person is a stranger potentially on the other side of the globe.

The use of social networking sites and applications for emotional support is not new. It’s hard to remember, but back in the early days of Facebook people were less shy about posting their trials and tribulations, be it bouts of insecurity or sad moments. We’re certainly seeing a resurgence of such activity with anonymous apps like Secret and Whisper, with users posting the negative sentiments or experiences they might otherwise keep off public profiles, and other users responding with support (and occasional trolling).

Moodswing’s therapy network proposition isn’t outlandish, but it is more dangerous than these other social networks. By establishing a network of students psychologists, denoting their time as support experts, Moodswing puts itself in dangerous territory. It convinces users to trust the people they are connected to — more than they might trust the anonymous commenters on Secret or Whisper for example — even though said supporters are not trained or rigorously vetted for the job.

McKeon is to be commended for realizing his users have needs his app isn't currently meeting. But his approach to solving the problem is fraught with perils and pitfalls.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]