How to improve Samaritans Radar

I’m on my way out of the house so can’t write why I think the new Samaritans app, Samaritans Radar, is a terrible idea; instead, I suggest reading what these people have already written about it.

Another Angry Woman: I do not consent to #SamaritansRadar
Queer Blue Water: Email to Samaritans about Radar
Latent Existence: Samaritans Radar and Twitter’s Public Problem
Jon Mendel: Problems with Samaritans Radar
Jon Mendal has also written two posts discussing Samaritans Radar from a research ethics point of view: post 1 and post 2
Joey McK: Why the Samaritans’ Radar is bone stupid

Here’s a really easy way this whole mess could have been avoided: trusted lists.

You download the app. It shows you which of the people you follow you AND who follow you back have also downloaded the app.

You can then send a request. Maybe something like this: “Hi, I noticed you use Samaritans Radar. I want to be able to support you if I can so feel free to add me to your trusted list”

Or you can request someone to be on your trusted list: “Hi, I noticed you use Samaritans Radar. I’m building my support network on here and would like to add you to it”.

Both users have to agree to this; for example, I can’t add someone to my trusted list if they don’t agree, and no one can add me to their trusted list unless I agree. These relationships don’t have to be reciprocal; there are lots of reasons why someone might not be able to offer support to someone in mental distress (for example, their own mental health issues – it’s really difficult to support someone who’s severely depressed when you’re severely depressed yourself).

You can also remove someone from your trusted list or remove yourself from someone’s trusted list. I’d be inclined for this not to be flagged up.

Email alerts then get sent out to people on the trusted list. Users can also add things to their list of “stuff to be flagged” so they don’t have to be explicit about their mental health on an account that their employer or colleagues follow.

This literally took about five minutes to think about and ten minutes to write. It’s not hard to think of ways you can protect people who are at risk of twitter abuse.

Content, choice and consent

This is a post about trigger or content warnings. The specific content I will be discussing is sexual assault, but there will be brief mentions of police violence, forced feeding, transphobia and death (cancer and suicide). I am lucky in that I don’t experience PTSD; I’m therefore writing with that perspective (and privilege). However, there have been times in my life when I’ve benefited from content warnings and there are still things I treat with caution. I prefer the phrase “content warning” because triggers vary so widely and encompass so many things – as well as words, they can include objects, scents and music and people with similar experiences may have different triggers. “Content warning” avoids some of those issues.

This post is prompted by an event, Transpose: Tate Edition. Transpose is a semi-regular LGBTQ event organised by CN Lester showcasing writers, artists, musicians, photographers and performers from within the LGBTQ – but especially the trans – community. Because it gives lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer artists and performers a space, Transpose often explores difficult things: our bodies, our families and relationships, the violence meted out to gender non-conforming bodies. I should mention here that I’ve performed at the London Pride and Halloween Editions

You can read DIVA’s review of Sunday’s performance, All About Trans’ review of the evening, an extract of CN’s longer meditation on gender, bodily experience and art and Fox’s notes on his performance.

Self-Portrait 1927 by Christian Schad. Image from Tate Modern

Self-Portrait 1927 by Christian Schad. Image from Tate Modern

The piece that prompted these thoughts was Juliet Jacques’ exploration of the painting on the right, the trans woman who modelled for it and the emotional, physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the artist. Jacques skilfully wove a tale constructed of institutional records, historical events and diary entries to give an astonishingly detailed insight into Heike’s world: her affiliation with Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, the experimental surgery being explored, the world of cabarets and the loose community of bohemians that flourished in Weimar Berlin between the wars. Jacques’ piece was vivid and harrowing – the artist’s treatment of her was brutal in a way that resonated with the experiences of many trans women, and a number of people had to leave the room. I didn’t leave but I was tense – braced for the worst, braced for the way that so many trans women’s stories end. I was transfixed, at once acutely uncomfortable and compelled. Part of the reason I stayed was because I felt it was important to hear and bear witness to this forgotten woman’s life; that the least I could do to honour her was to listen.

At the end Jacques described the destruction of Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft: its libraries were burned and the women and staff attached to it had disappeared – either in hiding, trying to escape the country or dead. The bohemians of Berlin were scattered. Heike was never heard of after the attack on the Institut on 6 May 1933. Jacques paused, allowing us to think about that. Then she announced that Heike’s story – Heike’s life – had been a work of fiction.

It was an astonishing double-punch. As a writer and an academic I was incredibly impressed with Jacques’ work and how she wove the real and the fictional together. A huge amount of careful, detailed research had gone into the creation of this piece encompassing history, politics and art history. It explored bodies as they’re perceived by their owner and by others, the rare opportunity for us to see ourselves as others see us, the different subjectivities and untruths and exaggerations offered by words and paint, the hurt of discovering that someone sees you very differently to the way you try to make yourself be seen. As a writer I recognised that Jacques’ skill in telling an undeniably powerful story. I would very much like to read it again.

But as a friend I knew some people in the audience had traumatic experiences of sexual assault. As an activist I think about the spaces I am in and which I help create, and how they embody and facilitate ways of being and interacting. One of the things that is vitally important to me is consent, and I see content warnings as being part of that.

Like Mary Hamilton, who discusses the problems of trigger warnings spreading from closed to public communities, much of my early experience of content warnings was in closed livejournal communities. As Hamilton notes, “[t]rigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear”. Through various textual conventions like ROT-13, clever use of CSS and cut tags that hide a portion of text and have to be clicked on to view the hidden text, there were means to balance the complex needs of different users. The default behaviour was to hide potentially distressing material. Viewing such material had to be a decision, and members of that community were given a choice in whether they unscrambled the text, whether they highlighted the CSS formatted text, whether they clicked to view the full entry.

However, Hamilton is responding to other pieces discussing content warnings in more public arenas. Crucially, these arenas encompass not only online written and visual communication, but spoken and offline print communication. The New Republic’s “Trigger Happy The “trigger warning” has spread from blogs to college classes. Can it be stopped?” and the Guardian’s “We’ve gone too far with ‘trigger warnings'” argue against content warnings for similar reasons. A valuable alternative perspective is offered by this post by Tressie McMillan Cottom; see footnote [1].

The New Republic and Guardian articles both argue that content warnings

[…] are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

These articles, to me, miss the point on several levels.

Firstly, they overcomplicate content warnings to the point of creating a straw man. Content warnings have been around a long time – consider the ratings (and justification for them) on films or the phrase “this report contains scenes some viewers may find upsetting” on the news. When thinking about content warnings, I realised that my teacher had given the class a content warning in secondary school. I was 14, and we were just starting our GCSE studies. The English Literature course focused heavily on war poetry. Before we started reading, analysing and discussing the poems, our teacher told us about the content of the material we were about to deeply engage with and asked us what our experiences of war had been: had we been involved in any way? had our families? did we have relatives who had been the armed forces, or were currently in them? We had the opportunity to discuss these things and flag these up for our teacher so she knew something about us, our experiences and what we were bringing to these poems.

Contrast this with another experience: I was 19, and in my first year of my English degree. It was a close reading tutorial; we’d get an unseen poem, spend an hour discussing it then write a formative essay on it. The poem we were analysing that hour was a response to Tennyson’s “Crossing The Bar” I don’t remember much about the poem; it was about someone being told of someone’s death, and struggling to come up with a eulogy before the clear, tolling words of “Sunset and evening star, / And one clear call for me!” came to him. I sat, silent and miserable, and the tutor rebuked me for not being my usual responsive self. My friend – also 19, a schoolfriend – had died of cancer the previous day; I’d been told the previous evening. To frame it in terms of the educational institution as the New Republic and Guardian articles want to do: was this good pedagogy? I could have brought a unique perspective to my analysis – the rawness of grief, the awareness of one’s teenaged mortality. Instead I sat there silent, barely able to engage with the poem.

Secondly, they argue that anyone needing a content warning is a special, selfish snowflake demanding the world be shaped to accommodate them. I suspect that of all people, those who have experienced trauma know that the world is not shaped to accommodate them. There’s a more interesting issue of how educational institutions should teach and engage with deeply problematic texts, and the duty of care we have towards our students and how this should be manifested, but I think that’s an issue for another post.

Thirdly, they conflate empathy with consent. Content warnings enable someone to make an informed decision about whether they want to participate in an event and if so, how best to prepare themselves. Sometimes this may mean saving reading material for another day when your mental health is less fragile. Sometimes it means engaging with material in a different context – reading a book in a busy cafe rather than alone and in the quiet of your bedroom in the dark hours. Sometimes it means scheduling activities differently to make sure you don’t get trapped in your own head – for me, this might mean spending the afternoon reading concordance lines about distressing things and seeing friends in the evening. If I know in advance, I can make a choice about how I structure my time. By not giving a content warning, you remove that choice.

I am reminded here of China Miéville’s[2] concept of choice-theft in Perdido Street Station. In it, sexual assault and rape are conceptualised as “choice-theft in the second degree” (with murder being that as the first degree). As a character explains,

“To take the choice of another… to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to..for all we individuals to have…our choices.

[…]

But all choice-thefts steal from the future as well as the present”.

[…]

What he saw most clearly, immediately, were all the vistas, the avenue of choice that [Spoiler] had stolen. Fleetingly, [Spoiler] glimpsed the denied possibilities.
The choice not to have sex, not to be hurt. The choice not to risk pregnancy. And then…what if she had become pregnant? The choice not to abort? The choice not to have a child?
The choice to look at [Spoiler] with respect?

I sometimes research really horrible stuff – they include police assault, forcible feeding and violent transphobia. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time going through thousands of concordance lines of transphobia, suicide and misgendering. Yes, reading it was upsetting and reminded me of the street abuse I’ve received, the risks I take by existing. But I believe, passionately, that it is vital to talk about these things – to haul them out and shine a ruthless light on them. I believe it’s important to understand how these things happen, to dissect them and understand their anatomy. How else can we challenge them? But when I talk about these things – when I present on them, when they emerge in my creative work – I give content warnings. My decision on when and where and how I engage with these things are not anyone else’s; I do not have the right to force someone along with me.

Instead, I seek my audience’s consent to come with me. I ask that they trust me enough to put themselves in my hands, that I will lead them through my academic or creative work without inflicting further hurts. I ask for their trust that I will talk about difficult things, but to do so in a way that offers them something: a vocabulary, a reconceptualisation, a challenge. I make it clear that they can leave the room and I won’t be offended or upset.

I refuse to enact further violations of consent.

I ask for their trust.

I offer them a choice.

__________________________________

[1] Tressie McMillan Cottom argues that “no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression”. I’ve tried to reflect this tension between content warnings and sites of resistance in my argument.

[2] I’m unhappy about referencing Miéville for reasons outlined in this post [CW: non-explicit discussion of emotional abuse]. I’ve chosen to acknowledge this and to also warn for the content in a way consistent with the argument I make in this post. If any writers have explored a similar concept, I’d be very interested in reading their work.

Student mental health part 2

Following on from my last post about student mental health, here’s a post from the other side of teaching about making space for “quiet students”. There are some really interesting ideas there and it’s made me reflect on my own teaching practice.

When I was an undergraduate, one of the people I was taught by seemed to have an air of desperation and mute appeal whenever we scrutinised the floor rather than meet his eyes. I found it unbearable; it would make the seminars drag on (dull – I wanted to get to the interesting stuff!) and honestly, I felt kind of sorry for him. So I talked a lot (which I disliked, and disliked myself for not shutting up) but furthermore, I felt I was being forced into the position of the talkative student who risked looking daft just so that the tutor at least had something to build on. I wasn’t a quiet student, but I resented not being given the chance to be one.

When I started teaching, I was determined not to reproduce that dynamic but at the same time, didn’t want to pick on people. I think there’s room for silence as a pedagogical tool but it wasn’t something that I wanted to use on a regular basis. In addition, I knew what access requirements my students had requested; some of these requirements concerned seminar room dynamics.

Instead I got my students to talk in pairs, trios or small groups while I visited each group in turn, listening to what they had to say, encouraging them and making sure they would have something to offer. I then brought the whole seminar group together and elicited something out of each group. I don’t know how obvious it was to my students but everyone got the chance to speak in the seminar and usually did so.

Obviously this tactic wouldn’t work everywhere and in every type of seminar which is why I liked Sarah’s post so much. I also think that strategies for helping quiet students create a better environment for everyone – everyone gets a chance to participate, no one feels vaguely resentful like I did as an undergraduate, and these strategies help make a seminar a supportive environment where students can try out ideas.

Something I didn’t discuss was mental health as specific to PhD students; this isn’t due to me not caring but, rather, it being a bit too personal. Jessica has recently been writing about this – there’s more in the series, but I particularly liked PhD blues: mental health and the PhD student and Having “the chat” with your supervisor: what I talk about when I talk about depression.

I also like this post about the experience of doing a PhD while disabled or chronically ill and the sheer stubbornness it takes: disabled PhD students of the world unite, unite and take over

And yet our inability to show up has no significant bearing on our ability to contribute beautiful original things to the world. We have the experience of working successfully according to our own strategies: we must do, for how else could we be here, now? We have strategies to get around these walls in our world. We need only your support, your belief, and your acknowledgement that the stories here speak to a state of affairs whose days should be numbered.

In other words: we know how to do this. All we need is the right support, the right conditions. In this respect we are no different from any other PhD student, or any student, or any individual embarking on a project of any kind.

Every single PhD student has worked hard to be where they are. Every single disabled PhD student has had to do this work within a context where things may be harder than they are for your average bear. They are not the only ones. Nonetheless, their experiences represent a distinct category of experiences among many. As with so many things it is only by bringing these experiences before the eyes of the world that we can hope that things will ever improve.

Student mental health

I recently read a Time To Change blog post on starting university with a mental health problem and it made me wonder what advice I’d give to a student in that position.

I was an LGBT welfare officer at Nottingham and I considered it part of my role to know as much as possible about structures for student welfare and advice – everything from housing issues to sexual health – all of which stood me in good stead when I began teaching. If a student came to me with a problem, chances were that I’d know where to find information to help them – or at least know where to start looking.

Student mental health is one of the things I care a lot about and it both frustrates and terrifies me that information about student mental health can be so difficult to find on university websites. So with that in mind, here are three things that I’d especially like students to know.

Identify formal sources of support

You’ll probably be assigned a personal tutor who’ll be your first point of contact if you have any problems or issues. If you don’t click with them you can usually swap to someone with whom you’ll get on better. Some departments may have mentorship schemes where you can ask to be matched with a postgraduate researcher and have regular meetings with them.

In my experience, there is support for mental health issues in universities but these aren’t necessarily well signposted. For example, in my university, people who can help with mental health issues include department disability liaison officers (DLOs), the counselling service, the disability advisor based in the student union, the postgraduate disability advisor, the Disabled Students Network, a mental wealth group, HealthyU and a mental health advisor in Occupational Health. Because it’s a university, no one talks to each other and it seems to come as a genuine surprise to some of these that others exist.

I know, it sucks that you have to negotiate this and learn more about the arcane systems of a university than any of your peers, but on the other hand you will gain an unparalleled education in “organisational structures” and will be able to negotiate the shit out of any workplace or organisation you may end up dealing with in the future. Sorry, that’s not really much consolation.

I’d recommend talking to different people, groups and services and working out which of them are useful to you and which are not. If you don’t find a service useful or find that it actively upsets you, then don’t feel compelled to stay with it. Some people find peer support useful; others find counselling useful; others just want to check in with the DLO every so often. Whatever works for you.

Work out what you need to do to be formally recognised as disabled

Unfortunately, this is one of the things that differs between universities. You’ll probably have to contact your university’s disability office or student services to find out about this – in my experience, different departments range from incredibly clued up, helpful and supportive (like my current one) to them going “errr, you what now?” if you try asking (some others I could mention).

In the University of Nottingham, you generally start by disclosing a disability or Specific Learning Difficulty/dyslexia or a long-term medical condition. You’ll probably meet someone to discuss what reasonable adjustments you require to support your studies. Reasonable adjustments include things like getting work to you (for example, providing handouts and slides in advance of the lecture/seminar or in a different format), recording lectures, arrangements about group work, scheduling seminars, and arrangements for assessments and exams. You’ll then end up with a Disability Referral Form, which briefly outlines the nature of the condition and what sort of support you need – these then go to your department and, in turn, your tutors.

It’s a good idea to get one of these even if your mental health is well managed – the last thing you want in the middle of a crisis is someone turning around and saying “sorry, we can’t give you an extension because you’re not on record as having a disability”. Even if you don’t end up requesting different arrangements, they’re useful because they let your department know you exist – and if you ever do need additional support, it’s like a fasttrack ticket to help.

You won’t be alone in having a referral form either; both undergraduates and postgraduates have them, including postgraduates who teach. Your seminar tutor or lecturer could be among them.

Talk to us

Having taught students with mental health issues, nothing worries me like one of them seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth. I’d much rather they let me know they were alright but too anxious to attend seminars, or they’d switched medication and it was making them sleep through their alarms, or they were too depressed to leave their room. These things happen, and if the student lets the department and me know about it, we can do something about it – like move the student to an afternoon seminar group, meet them individually to help them catch up on work, reassure them about coming to a seminar or direct them to better sources of support.

It’s also better to do this sooner rather than later – let us know when there’s a problem developing rather than when you’ve got loads of work to catch up on and are feeling a horrible mixture of guilt and anxiety for missing so much work, making it impossible to approach your tutor. There are things we can do to help.

Ultimately, we want our students to get as much as possible out of university and develop intellectually, creatively and personally. Mental health problems mean that it might not be easy or straightforward, but it’s still possible to do very well – indeed excel – at degree level.

Thanks to Heather and Alex Brett for their much appreciated comments on this post