Worldwide peer network helps youth with mental health problems

By / 24th of September, 2014
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“I have more scars than friends.”

Sandy Borras is a young Puerto Rican woman who battles with borderline personality disorder, severe depression and anxiety conditions – all of which have led to multiple suicide attempts and years of self-harm.

“I'm a self-harmer in recovery… struggling with the urges of relapsing,” she said.

Now, sharing her experience online via mental health oriented social network TalkLife is part of her recovery journey to help others as they help her.

“(TalkLife) helps us find our own solutions by the peer-to-peer discussion of our problems and concerns.

“By this, we form bonds of empathy and a support network that is literally at the palm of our hands.

“The TalkLife community is a family.”

A professional expert might be able to give information and reframe thinking... but a peer expert can share empathy, compassion, give hope.

The origins of the social media site and smartphone app trace back to Adelaide, South Australia, where former real estate manager Jamie Druitt drew from a difficult relationship breakdown to kick-start his idea of social entrepreneurship in 2012.

“There were times where I felt alone and really wanted to connect with others who might have experienced similar struggles,” he said.

“These are issues that our friends and family may not be able to understand and we definitely can’t talk about these challenges on mainstream social networks.”

Now the free application, which is available at Apple’s App Store and Google Play, hosts more than 15,000 posts daily from 90,000 users of 125 countries. Plus it has one very high profile fan, English comedy stalwart Stephen Fry, who tweeted his support for TalkLife branding it “that place” where youth need to talk about mental health issues.

With the tag line “the social network that saves lives”, the goal of the project is by no means modest.

Youth are the primary target because, for personal, trust or financial reasons, many do not seek help from family, friends or health professionals.

World Health Organisation 2014 figures state 20 per cent of children and adolescents have mental disorders or problems. About half of mental disorders begin before age 14.

 “We believe TalkLife can work hand-in-hand with professional mental health services,” Druitt said.

“TalkLife breaks down those initial barriers, allowing youth to start that initial conversation… bringing them to a place where they are comfortable to seek that next level of help if required.”

Central Queensland University Professor of Nursing and social network researcher Margaret McAllister said social connection and acceptance is crucial to the mental health recovery journey.

“A professional expert might be able to give information and reframe thinking… but a peer expert can share empathy, compassion, give hope as a role model who has been there done that, and practical strategies that help in everyday life,” Professor McAllister said.

Most users like Sandy find TalkLife through browsing phone applications – showing an inherent need for the service.

Moderating the platform for harmful or high-risk behaviour is essential.

There are several tiers of control. Users can flag comments from others that they consider offensive or concerning or report it to the Anti Bullying Crew – a group of highly engaged members who are screened and can immediately remove or report content to the administrators.

There is also a keyword trigger warning that responds by popping-up with professional and emergency contact details when certain language is used.

Further filters are being investigated through a partnership with Microsoft Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We hope to intercept people with appropriate help before they get to the point of self harm… It’s very early days but the potential is huge,” Druitt said.

This is a giant step after Druitt maxed his credit card buying coffee for a potential investor in May this year. Now TalkLife receives financial and mentoring support from private investors and startup schemes in the United Kingdom and Australia, including from business accelerator Bethnal Green Ventures in London.