Cross Posted from the eQuality Project Blog
By Jolene Hansell (eQuality Project Research Assistant)
GoGuardian is a program installed in about 3 million school-owned computers. This program has the ability to monitor a students web-browsing and searches even when students are at home in the evenings or on weekends. The program automatically flags certain search terms, including those related to suicide. The idea is that when a student searches about suicide, the computer flags this search for the school’s IT director who can then call up the student’s browsing history to get a more detailed picture of what the student is going through and get the student assistance if needed.
Sounds like a great way to prevent suicide, right? But the situation may be more complicated than it first appears.
My main problem with this model is that it perpetuates the stereotype that there is something stigmatizing about mental illness. The student, who may not feel like they can talk about their struggle with their own mental health with anyone, is using the anonymity of the Internet to get information. When the school invades the student’s privacy to get access to their online browsing history, they perpetuate the societal notion that there is something shameful about the way this student is feeling/what the student is searching. This vicious circle continues to push mental health issues into the dark corner of things we are not prepared to talk about in our society.
Suicide is the second leading cause of youth death. It is one of the biggest issues facing our world today. I have no doubt that the intentions of GoGuardian are good—trying to reach out and help individuals struggling with their mental health before they become a suicide statistic is a noble objective. But further stigmatizing mental illness makes the problem worse, not better.
The best tool we have in the fight against suicide is conversation. Every day we are bombarded with things we need to do for our physical health—eat right, exercise, get a good night’s sleep—but we are less apt to discuss the things we do for our mental health.
Mental health needs to be part of our daily conversations; it needs to be okay to say, “I’m not okay”. Rather than employing technologies that invade a student’s privacy, schools should be incorporating conversations about mental health into their daily classes. By facilitating this conversation, schools will create an environment where individuals who are struggling with their mental health will feel comfortable to speak up and ask for help, and remove the need for monitoring technology altogether.
 Jolene Hansell is Vice President of the Paul Hansell Foundation. The Foundation supports programs aimed at promoting the emotional and well-being of youth and works to include the mental health conversation in our daily lives.