Talking Not Spying

Cross Posted from the eQuality Project Blog 

By Jolene Hansell (eQuality Project Research Assistant)[1]

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.

[1] 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.


Words Matter as We Fight to Eliminate Stigma

Jolene and PaulDecember 7, 2010 is a day I will never forget, though its not so much a memory as it is this vivid video I’m trapped in as it plays back in my mind. The phone rang. Matt answered it. Looking scared and confused, he passed the phone to me saying, “It’s your mom,” and I felt my stomach drop. My mom didn’t even say hello, all she said was, “Jolene, you need to come home.” I knew something terrible had happened. And then, those two words that caused more pain than anything I had ever felt in my entire life, “It’s Paul.”

Paul was my brother, the only sibling I had, who at eighteen committed suicide.

At the time, Paul was an undergraduate student at Brock University studying business. He wanted to be an accountant. While we fought like most siblings do, my brother was one of my best friends—the only person who really knew me. I couldn’t believe I was living in a world where Paul no longer existed.

In the days, and weeks, and months following my brother’s death, one of the most difficult things for me to deal with was the stigma of suicide and mental health issues. People told me my brother was selfish for ending his own life, and whispers circulated about how kid from such a good family could choose to end his own life.

I didn’t want to be known as ‘the girl whose brother committed suicide,’ and it was until years afterwards that I started to realize why. The sticking point for me is on the verbage: “committed suicide.” People commit theft, commit treason, commit murder, commit adultery—all things this that society has deemed inappropriate, and which have even been criminalized by law. The word ‘committed’ in front of the word ‘suicide’ then naturally perpetuates the stigma that suicide is bad, and someone who committed suicide is a bad person.

My brother was NOT a bad person; he was my best friend—my partner in crime, my study buddy, my rock when things got rough. I’m not ashamed that he took his own life, but I am frustrated with the stigma of suicide that continues to persist.

This year the theme of the United Nations International Youth Day is Mental Health Matters. Over 280 million youth around the world suffer from a mental health condition, but only one out of every five will receive the help and support they need. For many of these youth, the stigma attached with mental health is a major fact in their decision to ask for help and received treatment. I know it was a reason for my brother.

So how do we break the stigma to increase youth access to mental health programs? Promotion and awareness are definitely important, but it starts with the words we use. The continued marriage of ‘committed’ and ‘suicide’ will only continue to mitigate progress in breaking the stigma. Words matter. And to break the stigma, we need to change the words.