Digital Futures: the background

The internet plays a central role in many people’s lives and it is becoming increasingly common for people to go online when they need support.

Everything Samaritans does aims to reduce the number of people dying by suicide. In order to bring about this change we're involved in a wide range of activity, which you can read more about here.

Digital development: where we are and how we got here

1. The need

The internet plays a central role in many people’s lives and it is becoming increasingly common for people to go online when they need support.

The internet poses a number of challenges and opportunities for suicide reduction. It offers people support networks and increased access to information, helping those who may feel isolated and alone to reach out to others. However, it can also be a dark and dangerous place where vulnerable people are exploited, harassed and bullied and where this can go unnoticed or unaddressed.

The growth of the internet and the ever increasing pace at which our lives are becoming digitised is undeniable.  Alongside the work we currently do and will continue to do, we need to ensure that our services are available to people online, that people struggling to cope are more likely to receive help, that harmful content is minimised, and that people can contact us in the way they feel most comfortable with, using the technology that they use in their day to day lives.

2. Samaritans and how we reduce suicide

Everything Samaritans does aims to reduce the number of people dying by suicide. In order to bring about this change we are involved in a wide range of activity which seeks to bring about the impacts shown in the image below:

  • reduce the feelings of distress and crisis that can lead to suicide;
  • increase access to support for people struggling to cope;
  • reduce the risk of suicide in specific settings and vulnerable groups; and
  • influence Governments and other agencies to take action to reduce suicide.

We need to explore how we can achieve these impacts in the online environment.

3. Broad direction of this work

The ultimate purpose of our digital development work is to reduce suicide by:

  • improving chances that people struggling to cope online access information and support;
  • reducing access to harmful content about suicide;
  • exploring ways that Samaritans can provide its emotional support service online; and
  • improving Samaritans chances of reaching the widest possible population of people who are struggling to cope.

What we currently do online

Samaritans already have an online presence. People can access our helpline service via email and we have close partnerships with social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. You can read more about some of this work here and here.

4. Progress to date  

Samaritans has undertaken a series of research and scoping projects. Summarised below are the main strands of activity that have taken place, the outcomes achieved, and some examples of the products created as a result.

  1. Reviewing existing literature and research and undertaking our own research into suicide and the online environment;
  2. Understanding what other charities are doing online and their experiences;
  3. Looking at ways we currently deliver our services and how we can learn from these when we look to develop new online services; and
  4. Working with partner organisations to coordinate our work online and share the challenges we face.

Some of the outcomes of this work have been:

  1. Improved understanding of the threats and opportunities posed by the online environment;
  2. Understanding gaps in current service provision, common pitfalls and areas of risk in developing digital services;
  3. Identification of lessons that can be learned from Samaritans existing service channels and projects; and
  4. Understanding of the process Samaritans would need to go through if we were to introduce a new service channel and some of the policy and procedural changes that would need to occur.

Some of the products that have resulted from this work can be found here:

5. Guiding principles

Digital development requires Samaritans to work in a different way to how we have developed things in the past. There are three key principles we are applying to this work to make sure we develop effective services that are sustainable and meet people’s needs.

Principle 1: An iterative approach to planning
Rather than attempt to produce a ‘blueprint’ of the service and technology that Samaritans wants to develop, it is important that we learn as we go and adapt our plans based on experience and evidence. As technology changes the project outcomes may also need to be adapted.

Principle 2: User involvement
We will engage a wide range of stakeholder groups in our work to develop new ways for Samaritans to engage online.  We aim to develop services with the people who will use those services.

Principle 3: Doing things differently
In order for Samaritans to be able to develop effective digital services we need to be prepared to do things differently. Our current service cannot be lifted from one environment and translated directly into another. We need to look at what we could be doing online separately to how we do things offline. Just because we do things in a certain way at the moment does not mean that we can’t consider alternatives and additional ways of working.

6. Next steps

Digital Development Discussion
We’ve started a discussion with people to find out their views on the opportunities and threats for suicide reduction presented by the online environment in order to feed into our plans for Samaritans digital development work.

We want to know:

  • What people think about the opportunities and threats for suicide reduction presented by the online environment;
  • What people think about the ways Samaritans currently feels we could address these; and
  • If there is anything people think we are missing in terms of areas for future development, challenges we could be addressing or different ways we could be working.

Creation of a plan for development of digital projects

  • A plan for the Trustees to approve which will set out a number of project areas for the charity to pursue as part of its new strategy;
  • Short medium and long term view of what digital development we are going to prioritise;
  • Evidence that we understand areas which may be controversial and have a sense of what different audiences want; and
  • All of the above based on research and discussion with experts and users.