Reducing suicide with empathic technology
(because sometimes asking RUOK isn’t appropriate, wanted or needed)
Mental health is in crisis in Australia. According to Lifeline, suicide remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44. This equates to more than eight deaths by suicide in Australia each day, and for every death by suicide, it’s estimated that as many as 30 people attempt to end their lives. That’s a staggering 65,300 suicide attempts each year.
I know this number well because I was seconds away from stepping off a seven-story building when my suicide attempt was rudely interrupted. The unexpected SMS that pulled me back from the brink was literally a friend asking RUOK as he’d seen I’d disappeared off social media for a few days. Saved by an SMS that asked an important question, that’s my life story.
Yet, however well timed and intentioned that lifesaving SMS was, I must admit that when people cross paths with me these days and feel the need to ask RUOK, I find it more than a little invasive and oftentimes inappropriate. I know their intentions are for the most part good, but just because you feel the need to ask me the question does not mean that now is the time or place for you to put me on the spot to answer it. Especially if I haven’t even considered it.
Asking RUOK can be dangerous if you don’t have permission to ask, if you’re asking simply so you feel better, or if you don’t know what to say or do if someone says ‘No, I’m not OK.’ Now, I don’t mean to throw the baby out with the bath water here. Asking RUOK is a good first step toward addressing a serious issue, but there needs to be some sensitivity here.
We should all feel empowered to reach out to support those around us when we see people we care about struggling. Having the courage to speak up and reach out is commendable, but before you do, consider the consequences. I’d argue that despite Brene Brown’s push for humanity to be more vulnerable, most of our species just aren’t there yet. Soon perhaps.
Trust me on this. As someone who’s publicly spoken about suicide – and thus labelled themselves as being a potentially high risk of reoffending – the last thing I’m going to be able to cope with is someone asking a deeply awkward and loaded question at the wrong time.
Which is why my team and I are trying a more discreet approach to helping people help themselves when they’re having a tough time. We’ve spent almost two years building the world’s first stress detection and management smartwatch app to help individuals discreetly detect and take control of stress before it becomes a problem.
Much like how my phone beeped at a crucial point in my suicide attempt, our ID.STRESS app intervenes when it detects stress signals, before guiding the wearer through some relaxation techniques, or connecting them with social or emergency support if needed. And given that stress underpins 75% of visits to GPs and underlies the six leading causes of death (of which suicide is #1), we think this is the best place to start.
The app is in BETA trials with Zurich Australia as we speak, and the feedback so far has been positive. Dominic Brandon, Head of GI Marketing, Zurich Australia told me “The ID.STRESS app has become my dashboard for life. Being asked if I’m OK when a change is detected is like having a silent partner who has my back. I was surprised to see the immediate effect breathing exercises had; the app enables a sense of calm and control.”
And that’s 100% what our approach is all about, control. Putting people back in control of the stress that costs businesses worldwide $400bn in absenteeism and lost productivity. Stress that underpins a significant percentage of the 800,000 suicides worldwide each year.
It’s that same control you may inadvertently take away from someone when you corner them and ask them RUOK without considering the time and place. So, this World Suicide Prevention Day, please take a moment to think before you hurl a well-intentioned RUOK at someone who maybe isn’t. It could be unwelcomed, intrusive, and potentially do more harm than good.