Online helplines

The Guardian


Since the death of Princess Diana, the prevailing media myth about the British has been that we have become emotionally incontinent, ready to pour out our feelings at the drop of a hat. The truth is somewhat different. Research last year for the marketing agency DNA found that a third of British people feel uncomfortable seeking advice on difficult subjects such as dating, sexual problems and drug addiction.

The UK-based Samaritans helpline confirms this, particularly among the young. “Our research has shown that young people worry a lot about contacting the Samaritans — that their problems aren’t severe enough, or they’re too embarrassed to speak to someone on the phone,” says Sarah Nelson, a spokeswoman. To tackle the problem, the Samaritans two years ago launched an anonymous email service. From their website, users can send an email, which is put in a central queue and routed to one of the Samaritans’ trained advisers.

Last year, 2,00,000 of the 4.8m contacts to the Samaritans were by email, and Nelson is convinced the service has drawn in people who wouldn’t call the helpline. “Using email helps them feel we’ll answer it when we can, that they’re not being a burden to us.” Strikingly, while a quarter of the phone calls come from people who mention suicidal feelings, half of the emails do so.

Most charities dealing with sensitive subjects such as depression or marital breakup now offer phone helplines or face-to-face counselling, yet they have been slow to exploit the potential of the web. There is good reason for such a cautious approach. The Samaritans wanted to make sure their service was absolutely secure and that they could respond to demand; they have only recently begun to advertise the service, having acquired funding from Vodafone.

The web-based charity Youthnet UK realised the need for an online service when it was contacted by EMI to say that a number of artist sites were receiving emails from distressed young fans confiding their problems. It piloted an anonymous web-based advice service for 16-24 year olds, using partners such as Brook and Shelter to answer a wide range of problems from sexual health to housing. “It’s been so powerful because it takes a message that is potentially difficult and less palatable, and extends it to say to the user, `We’re here to help you along the journey you decide to take’,” says Chris Perry, managing director of DNA. Some new technologies have yet to be tapped, though the Samaritans are thinking about offering an instant messaging service, while YouthNet is excited by the potential of mobile phones and digital TV. Yet one of the most striking things to emerge from the organisations’ experience is that many of those seeking help have found comfort simply in writing the email. “Writing is a very therapeutic and cathartic way of expressing your emotions,” says Nelson. “For some people, it’s been the writing of the email itself that has been an important part of the help-seeking.”