I apologise in advance for the length of this post, as there is a lot I want to say. What I don’t apologise for is my frustration and disappointment. I’m not OK and we need to talk about why. Last Thursday, the R U OK campaign was launched, designed to raise awareness of mental health issues – particularly depression and the risk of suicide. The central idea was to encourage people to have conversations with those friends, colleagues or family members who may be having a harder time of it and – if it turns out they aren’t actually OK – hopefully be able to intervene. Such conversations are vital in preventing suicide. So far, so definitely worthwhile. Part of the campaign was a major social media roll-out.It is here that things began to fall apart. We need to have a serious discussion about why. And I think I am certainly qualified to identify and criticise those flaws. Not because I am a social media enthusiast. But because, in 2006, I was contemplating suicide.
Good intentions aren’t enough
This is a hard post for me to write. Not only because it requires me to discuss very personal and traumatic experiences for me, but because I don’t wish to criticise good intentions. Let me be clear that anyone who devoted time and effort to creating and delivering the campaign and those of you who participated in whatever way, I admire your intentions. Really I do. The urge to help others cannot be criticised. However, intentions aren’t all that are needed to get the desired result. Sadly, I believe the failings of the RUOK campaign can be traced back to the very same inability of – for want of a better term – ‘healthy’ people to understand the mind and behaviour of someone who is clinically depressed that this very campaign should be addressing. Instead of creating genuine awareness and education about depression, #RUOK on Twitter and FaceBook perpetuated the same inability to communicate with those most in need of being heard and understood. This most serious of causes, one with so much emotion and personal pain tied up in it, was reduced to no more than a badge for some, a token feel-good act for others and a joke for a few. The effect was to trivialise mental illness and depression. Not a good outcome.
I’ve written about my battle with severe depression twice before – A Blue Day and Three Meetings with the Black Dog. I’ve never been coy about my condition – I believe it is important to share these experiences so that others can see that the depressed mind works outside of their realm of experience. Unless you have also fallen down the dark rabbit hole – to a place far from Wonderland but just as surreal – you can never see the world in the same way. You can’t. It is a hell that affects your perception of the world around you. Reason does not work. Behaviour is not normal. And we develop coping mechanisms to get through the day that end up actually self-perpetuating the condition whilst simultaneously hiding it from others. It’s been with me now for seven years, since a horrible September day in 2003 when I found my partner, Rebecca, on the bathroom floor. She was only 24 and there was no obvious cause of death. Within 24 hours of Rebecca’s death I was being quizzed as part of a possible murder investigation – for three days. Instead of grieving, I was probed by strangers about every aspect of our private lives. Every. Intimate. Detail. It was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone and severely screwed with my mind. The family complained but the process had to continue, salting an open would and twisting a rusty knife. Foul play was ruled out and her heart was eventually blamed six months later. But after such a traumatic period my personality was battered, my behaviour erratic and unsociable. I started drinking – a lot and alone. I became less sociable, enjoying the company of strangers more than friends – because they didn’t ask me the awkward questions and had no idea of my personal horror. And I also became extremely adept at hiding this from friends, family and work. For the next three years, my mind became steadily wearier. Depression is energy sapping. It makes you feel like every day is a marathon just to get through. It slowly erodes your will to keep going. Until you no longer want to. In 2006 I was commuting by train to the Blue Mountains every day. On those journeys, I found myself fantastising about the steps I would need to take before suicide to avoid unnecessary hardship to my family. I needed to get my taxes in order, to spare them a financial mess. I needed to sell my rare Spider-Man comics because my daughter would never get the right price for them. Thankfully, it was thoughts of my daughter that saved my life. The thought of what my suicide would do to her was enough for me to realise I was on the edge of a precipice and I called for help. My doctor told me that as I had yet to put those preparations into action, I wasn’t quite at the bottom of the spiral. However, he pointed out, if I stayed untreated, I would deteriorate further until even thoughts of preparations would fall away until suicide became an impulse rather than a planned action. I would lose control over my own ability to choose to stay alive. That talk terrified me more than any other. I have been on medication almost constantly ever since and may well be for the rest of my life. Trying to ween myself off soon sees the worst return, leaving me very little choice. Life is now as normal as it ever will be. I’m married, new career, new life. Most days are fine, but there will always be periods when the darkness returns. Now. Please. Tell me how a tweet or a hashtag can make a difference to that.
A tweet isn’t enough
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to email, sms & DM me to ask #ruok. It’s so heartwarming & yes, apart for being ill, I’m ok
I spoke to Karalee on Friday and she confirmed that no one phoned or visited or invited her for coffee. There wasn’t a genuine conversation – just a deluge of direct messages, tweets and emails taking the premise of the campaign extremely literally and simply asking if she was OK. It may be heartwarming to know people are thinking of you – but there needs to be more than a token gesture. R U OK demands genuine action, genuine conversation, a concerted effort to find out whether someone really is OK underneath their carefully crafted exterior. Again, I want to stress I am not criticising anyone for tweeting rather than phoning. Good intentions are good intentions, even if they fail. But a person who is not OK will not say so on Twitter or email or SMS. They just won’t. Karalee agreed. Karalee also has personal experience of depression and wrote of this last week in support of the campaign. She, like me, was also saddened and disappointed to see how the social media campaign created a tokenistic veneer of care instead of genuine education and understanding. Whether anyone seriously expected to get a response of ‘not OK’, I don’t know. But putting RUOK into social media, in the form that it took, allowed people to feel they had done their bit by simply selecting their email address book and hitting send or merely tweeting everyone with a blanket question and a call for DMs if anyone is in trouble. In fact they had completely missed the point. Social media turned RUOK into a badge-wearing event. People were encouraged to display their support by tweeting or otherwise spreading the ineffectual message. They were made to feel good about themselves by having apparently done something they were told was positive and helpful. This was at the expense of true intervention and any true understanding. What a massive waste. This was therefore a social media campaign aimed solely at the sharing and viral behaviour of the healthy users of networks to create impressions. It was not designed to dovetail with the genuine behaviours of those supposed to be the end target of the campaign. Those people, myself and Karalee included, ended up looking on in disappointment. We were outsiders to our own party – as we watched people congratulating themselves on a job well done. As the official website and the above video says – RUOK was about having real conversations. The campaign got it so right before it got it so wrong. The push into social media saw that message completely buried under a hashtag of well intentioned back-slapping that completely negated the true intent.
One day isn’t enough
A few people have expressed disappointment about the fact the message didn’t encourage people to start these conversations EVERY day. Having the conversation once is not enough. It requires constant watchfulness. My best mate often calls if he thinks I might be having a bad day. If I post on Facebook that work is getting to me, for example, my mobile will go. Most times I just need to say that yes, it really is just a bad work day and everything is fine. But he checks. And I love him for that. I didn’t hear from him on Thursday or from any of my close friends and family. Why? Because they don’t need a special day to check on me once a year. They support me and my depression all year round. Of course, a day for a cause is an established marketing tactic. We should all be aware every day of breast cancer or war veterans or whatever the cause, and donate or act accordingly. But a special cause ‘day’ can be a reminder to some people and a education to others, so there is validity there. But RUOK was presented in a way that made it sound like a one day event rather than an everyday battle. Every day behaviour wasn’t being encouraged. It was as if you could say R U OK once and your commitment was over. Sorry, but if you genuinely care, you’ll genuinely care tomorrow and the next day too.
If only one life is saved, is it worth it?
Iggy Pintado was directly involved in the social media aspect of the campaign. I respect his wide experience, yet I do feel that this was a misstep. Iggy, I hope you take this post in the spirit intended. Catherine White started a discussion around the issues of RUOK in social media on FaceBook where Iggy responded with the following (part of a much longer comment.)
I don’t need to wait to know that if 50,000+ impressions prevented one less suicide attempt, it was worth the hours of my time.
It is a common argument made for such cases – deflecting criticism. Who can argue with a saved life? But it also illustrates perfectly the flaws in this approach. Firstly, how are impressions going to save anyone? It is the conversations and the connections and the genuine interventions that will save someone. Impressions will tell us nothing about the true effectiveness of this campaign in achieving its stated goal – reaching those at risk. Secondly, what if a better campaign could have saved two lives? Or three? Or ten? A hundred? The argument does not negate serious criticism of a campaign that could have – and should have – been thought through far better. If impressions and reach are the sole yardstick by which the campaign will be assessed – and I worry that it might be – then the team no doubt succeeded. Plenty of impressions, huge amount of reach. But to achieve those impressions at the expense of the very people the campaign is supposed to be about is a major failure.
A final plea
This post isn’t meant as an angry soapbox rant. It’s more of a plea. We all know that social media campaigns live or die on our understanding of human behaviour. If we misinterpret the online behaviours of our target audience, it’s a big, fat #Epicfail. The R U OK social media strategy completely failed to understand the crucial behaviours; not only of the people suffering mental issues who were the focus, but also of everyone else lacking in awareness or experience to know how to appropriately approach a sufferer. We need to have this discussion. Please. I need to know you’re listening. Disagree if you must, debate if you please. But if we want social media to be of any use in promoting social causes like mental health in the future, we need to learn lessons from this. We can’t afford to waste social media through tokenism and an easy grab for impressions or reach. We can’t afford to seriously annoy or frustrate the very people a campaign is designed to help. So. Am I OK? It depends on which day you ask me. I was OK on Thursday. Angry, but OK. Next week I might not be OK. Three weeks ago, I wasn’t. That’s how it works – day by day. But don’t tweet me to ask. Sorry, but you’ll need to work a lot harder than that.