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What does online emotional support really look like?

3 minute read

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon is Assistant Director of Digital Services and Change at Samaritans. He has worked in digital roles at a number of charities including the Royal Society, British Asian Trust and Prince of Wales Charitable Fund and is a graduate from the University of Oxford and the University of London. In this second blog post published for Nominet, he sheds light on what emotional support online looks like.

On 2nd November 1953, Chad Varah answered the first ever call to a brand new helpline for people contemplating suicide. Today, over 20,000 volunteers give up their time 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to help people struggling to cope.

In addition to our telephone helpline service, it’s vital that we evolve new ways of supporting the people who need us most, in ways that feel most natural to them. Samaritans is currently moving from the pilot testing stage through to launch of a new online chat service, which we hope will give people the emotional support online that they need.

But what does this really look like? And how can we ensure we preserve that human connection?

What does online emotional support look like?

A recent study by Bristol University found that younger people experiencing suicidal feelings online tended to pursue opportunities with others and explore online help[1]. People who are struggling to cope and online, are unlikely to take an action that would direct them to the offline world. Online emotional support meets people where they are in the here and now. They do not need to even leave the room, and can continue to use the same device.

We know from our pilots that for online emotional support to work, it needs to be easy to use, confidential and accessible. It needs to communicate empathy in the online world, allowing the people using the service and volunteers alike, to express themselves authentically. Ensuring that signposting to Samaritans’ online chat service is visible in places where people in distress may seek support, such as on social media, will be an important part of reaching people who are struggling to cope.

Fostering human connection online

Human connection is fundamental to what we do. The efforts we’ve made to create a space that feels safe online are a tiny part of what needs to be done to provide the support people need. Ultimately, it’s our volunteers who ensure that the human connection is always there.  

One of the Samaritans volunteers on shift for one of the pilots of the online chat service, says:

“It was an absolute privilege to be part of the online chat pilot. It was an exciting and historic moment for Samaritans and for the people who contact us for help. As with our phone lines, people who contact us for help need to be heard, be listened to and that’s why we’re here.” 

We’ve got to keep evolving so we can be there for everyone. We are very grateful that Nominet have chosen to support us even further with their festive funding initiative via .UK domain registrations. The additional contributions will accelerate our ability to bring make online chat available to our callers. This will be a milestone achievement for the charity.

Nominet will donate £1 to Samaritans for every new, paid for .UK domain registered from 9 November until 17 January 2020. Funds raised through new domain registrations ending in .co.uk, .uk, .org.uk, .me.uk, .ltd.uk, .ltd.uk, .plc.uk and .net.uk, will support Samaritans’ work developing the vital online chat service from pilot stage to launch.

Samaritans is the only organisation that provides free emotional support, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for anyone across the UK and Ireland who is struggling to cope.

Find a domain

[1] https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/publications/using-the-internet-for-suiciderelated-purposes(e2b9be6a-89b7-4a12-ad8d-226fa4426048).html

Assistant Director of Digital Services and Change at Samaritans.

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