Across developed and developing countries, Internet and mobile technology is transforming the way which people live, work, and play. Whether it be the mass distribution of mobile phones in developing countries – bypassing the need for telephony infrastructure, the emergence of social media as an unlikely tool for citizens to circumvent state control, or the democratization of global education through initiatives such as the Khan Academy, it is clear that the Internet will play a key role in changing the life opportunities for billions of people around the world. However, Internet technology is a tool, and like all tools can cause both benefit and harm. If we are to experience the best of Internet technology we must mitigate against its potential harms and, more importantly, not let those potential harms prevent us from harnessing its awesome power to address what appear to be intractable social challenges.
An example of one of these challenges is an area in which I have dedicated my career – mental health. In many countries – including the one in which which I live, Australia – mental health is the health challenge of our time. In Australia, at any given time, approximately one in four people will experience a mental health difficulty. In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 25 and under. It is an issue that disproportionately affects the young with 75% of mental illness emerging before the age of 25. These statistics are similar to other parts of the world including the US. While there are a number of risks associated with delivering mental health services via Internet technology, it’s important to ask ourselves whether we can still use technology to fundamentally improve the mental health for all.
This was a question that concerned a small group of people in Australia in 1997. In response to a rising rate of youth suicide, they formed a charity and launched the world’s first online mental health service – ReachOut.com. While this may seem obvious today, establishing ReachOut.com went against the orthodoxy of the time and was viewed by many as controversial and dangerous. However, since its launch it has been a stunning success. In Australia it is accessed by over 1.4 million users each year, and is a key part of the mental health landscape for young people. Due to its impact in Australia, sister services have been established in Ireland and the US. Most importantly, thanks to the efforts of many organisations, including our own, youth suicide rates have declined by over 40%.
I was fortunate enough to be part of the team that launched ReachOut.com in Australia and internationally. As a result I have been at the crossroads of mental health and technology for over 15 years. So what is it I have learnt in that time that may be of use to others seeking to use technology to address social challenges?
We welcome all those that have an interest in understanding more about ReachOut.com and the charity behind it, the Inspire Foundation. To do so, please visit www.inspire.org.au.