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Column: Depression affects one in four – so we tried to do something about it

Norah Bohan set up a Twitter counselling service for people in difficulty over the Christmas holidays – and was amazed by its success. Here she explains what happened.

File photo
File photo
Image: David Cheskin/PA Wire/Press Association Images

THE PAST MONTH or so has seen the effects of depression and suicide hit the news, with several reports of celebrity death and depression as well as many cases of ‘anyone’s son’.

Depression affects one in four of us; suicide kills twice as many people as car accidents, but that does not take into account that some car fatalities may also be suicide. Drowning is also not included, so the number may be higher again. In all, more than 500 people were confirmed dead through suicide last year in Ireland.

Suicide is one of the most devastating deaths that can affect a family, yet often the stigma is such that people do not talk about their loss, creating an unbearable spiral of pain and suffering, much worse if possible than the actual loss of the loved one.

One of those news reports was the basis for a late night Twitter conversation at the end of November between @alanceltic (Alan Lavender), and me, @talentcoop (Norah Bohan).

Alan and I have experience of depression and voiced a desire to see an environment where it is treated as any other illness, spoken about openly, without negative judgment or shame but with kindness, care to help the many sufferers and perhaps prevent someone from acting on the suicidal voice inhabiting their head which negates all rational thought of life.

What made this conversation different was that we decided – rather than just talking about it – to do something to change the attitude and stigma, using social media as the basis for promoting the message. With Christmas approaching, a time many feel extra vulnerable, we had our deadline.

‘Over 200,000 people saw the initial tweet’

So started what has been the busiest but most rewarding month I can recall – running a project with no budget, everything by donation and with undoubtedly the most satisfying results.

Within a day, we sent a tweet asking for help. The response was superb, from sufferers, families, media, PR, social media, mental health professionals, mental health organisations, university research projects and more. Over 200,000 people saw the initial tweet.

A week later a week a plan was in place, a video scripted. Four days later we filmed, with full crew, equipment and food! ‘It starts with you’ looks at how we react to depression and suggests changes to our attitude and behaviour. The day after filming our video, we recorded a cover of Springsteen’s If I Should Fall Behind, Wait For Me – its loving words a guide to how we should treat ourselves and others when depression strikes. The track runs like a ribbon through the video.

The next week spent editing video and song, had us ready for our Twitter and YouTube launch on December 20, delivered just 30 minutes late!

The launch was timed to send a strong message at Christmas. Recognising that many feel this is a very vulnerable time, we also set up a volunteer ‘tweet’ support to run 24/7 over the nine-day Christmas 2011 holiday, aimed at those who might need some support.

We based the service on the first advice always given – ‘talk to someone who will listen’ – but for many, family and friends are not that person. So with advice from experts and volunteers from twitter, we set up a manned tweet account.

As advised by the professionals we described it exactly as what it was – a caring tweetfriend to contact if someone felt desperate to talk, backed with professional contact points to refer people to if required.

‘Not counselling, not medical, just listening’

Not a counselling service, nor a medical service; simply a caring listening service but with most of our volunteers having counselling or similar skills from careers including teaching, HR, Journalism etc, and some with expertise from experience of depression. We feel we provided a group better equipped than the ‘family or friend’ depression sufferers are always advised to speak to.

Was there a need for such a service? It seems so. We had up to 20 ‘tweetcalls’ daily, with people contacting us from countries including England, Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Spain, the USA, South Africa, India and  Australia. In fact there was so much activity that we surpassed Twitter’s daily message limits almost every day and had to set up a backup account.

Was there a caller profile? Yes  - all were people at the end of their line and needing support. No – in terms of sex, age, social group or anything else. Some called for direct support for themselves, others for help with a family member or friend. Conversations lasted anything from 30 minutes to three hours.

If anything callers confirmed that the one in four can be any of us – young, old, male, female, single, married, rich, poor, successful and not. The range of issues has been incredibly diverse from feelings of loneliness, through relationship issues, money problems, to the total despair of suicidal thoughts.

‘Did we make a difference?’

In many cases just being allowed to talk, to be listened to with kindness and care has been enough to give someone an essential uplift. For others issues have been beyond the role we set out to fulfil and we’ve provided the confidence of local contact numbers for professional help. In some cases we’ve recommended emergency contact with a GP or hospital.

Did we make a difference? I’d say yes – a particular end of call comment ‘Thank you, tonight you’ve saved my life’ tells its story and was the best reward. It was perhaps matched only by the happy outcome of a five-hour emergency started late one night when a desperate person contacted us for help in contacting a friend, believed to have taken their own life, due to messages left on a profile page.

Our response was immediate and involved volunteers coordinating a search over two countries involving police, hospitals, online sources and a massive social media campaign, to try to contact the missing man. It was a very worrying five hours with a huge sigh of relief from all – when a nurse, seeing a tweet, recognised a patient and contact was made to confirm he was well.

The online support service closed at midnight on January 2, with many comments of support and requests to continue from users, volunteers and others. This will be reviewed along with the next stages of our plan which involves continuing to have our Facebook page provide safe space for those who want to use it, a website for information on the project and to house our resource bank of support materials, an educational programme which we’ll continue to roll out and hopefully a volunteer based advocate programme to provide real support to those with depression. We also want to strengthen links with organisations such as the Samaritans, Pieta House and others who have been mutually supportive to us.

I could not write without expressing deepest thanks for the support the project has received from volunteers from the twitter community who have given so much and proved themselves the best. We have proved that ordinary people working together for a good aim, can almost achieve miracles!

My BIG message though is to everyone reading this, to please view our video and share it with family, friends, colleagues. You can be part of changing attitudes to depression and suicide because you never know who the one in four might be. Someday, maybe even you.

Norah Bohan (@Talentcoop) was a founder of the @121depression #depressionhurts social media project .

The project also has a Facebook page, which has become a place of safe exchange and community where a number of high profile individuals together with some who aren’t have posted their own stories, with great honesty and courage.

Their video, It Starts With You, is here:

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