The tragic death of beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams has turned this country’s focus to mental illness once again, hopefully for the long term. In response to his death, many articles have emerged about depression, suicide and the experience of suffering mental illness, an experience still largely stigmatized and misunderstood. While these articles do well to educate the public and draw their attention to an important issue, we should also focus on awareness of warning signs and preventative measures.
An app called the CheckUp App or CheckUp Project strives to prevent suicide through algorithmic monitoring of social media posts. It is one of the first programs to take advantage of the surplus of personal information shared on social media that may be an outlet for a call for help. While other social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr provide services for friends or followers to get in touch with the company if they are concerned about someone’s safety, the CheckUp App is a more involved process that actively looks for warning signs. This proactive approach eradicates any hesitation and may be able to detect a possibly dangerous situation before it progresses.
Started by 22 year-old Ricky Kirkendall, the CheckUp app connects to Twitter and scans a user's Twitter timeline every two minutes searching for “flagged” words indicating a person may be in need of help. If the app encounters flagged phrases or words, it analyzes the trend of prior tweets to determine whether they project a negative or positive disposition. Currently, the app can only handle a limited number of users but you can test the program by adding yourself to the wait list on www.checkupapp.org.
Ultimately, the app is only an aid. The responsibility to act lies on the person using the app. If the app detects concerning social media behavior it will send an email to the person using the app. It is their responsibility to reach out to their friend.
Signs of depression, self-harm or suicide are not always clear or easily noticed. They may not be written on social media or even spoken about in private. Depression can root itself in people who appear the happiest. Friends and family may not always know how to respond to a friend in danger. They may fear the response to their intervention. But, with more awareness, more efforts to listen and understand and more ways to help or be helped, maybe we can push past stigmas and hesitation.
This app cannot detect every friend in need. It can’t accompany someone home, lend an ear or monitor offline behavior but it might be able to save those who do confess their troubles online. To say the least, it’s a step in the right direction. With time and growth, the CheckUp App has the potential to kick-start an intervention and save lives.
If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:
Boston College Emergency Health Services: 617-552-4444
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
There are many more resources and forms of communication and we encourage you to seek them if needed.