Online lifeline: making chatrooms a place of positive action

When they realised their brother Cormac was using chatrooms before his suicide, Oisín and Diarmuid Scollard set about creating a positive online space to address mental ill-health

Sat, Oct 5, 2013, 01:00

For Oisín and Diarmuid Scollard, their brother Cormac’s suicide, in 2003, set them on a professional path they never thought they would take, but one that is having a hugely positive impact on the mental health of others.

“There was a big period of all the guilt and anger that happens when you go through a suicide, and that was a difficult process. It took a lot longer to get through, longer that I thought it would,” Diarmuid says about dealing with Cormac’s death.

Gradually, he and his older brother Diarmuid, from Terenure, in Dublin, began floating the idea of something to do with mental health online.

Diarmuid owns a creative agency, Design Minds, and Oisín has a tech background (he works for Google) but is also a lawyer and was practising when they set up, a nonprofit mental-health website that is pushing the boundaries of service provision in mental health.

When it comes to the impact of online communication on mental health, the internet is generally in the bad books. Cyberbullying – the catch-all phrase encompassing the social pressures of Facebook, compulsive use of social media, Twitter feuds, chatroom arguments, anonymous spiteful comments, trolling and aggressive discourse – can make the internet a hard place to communicate.

But spaces also exist that can benefit mental health. Turn2me provides online peer support groups and web-based one-to-one counselling sessions. It also offers a mood-tracking tool called Thought Catcher. Services are provided at low-cost or free, depending on what the user can afford, and professionals also engage with the website and contribute to a more informed discussion about mental health.

Over the years, chatrooms have been criticised for offering wayward advice about everything from the most benign medical problems to eating disorders and depression.

The Scollards set out to change that when they realised Cormac was using chatrooms that were “unmoderated and unregulated and didn’t have any professionals”, Oisín says. “When the unfortunate happened, we both said to ourselves that we wanted to do something in the online space. We started this thing off with no money, we didn’t know what we were doing.”

There were naysayers at the beginning. “We met a couple of people and they all said that it’s really risky to get into online mental health, that there are too many challenges.” The brothers stuck to their vision, at first building a website as a peer forum, quickly growing in membership, with people attracted to the anonymity of the forum and the accessibility of discussing their issues online as an easier first stop to getting help and support.

Now, 25,000 registered members make it one of the biggest forums for mental health globally. Although members come from 167 countries, the bulk of the traffic is coming from Ireland, with Scotland, England, Canada and South Africa also prominent. Users cross demographics, with 45 per cent male, and a third aged 18-25. Supporters came on board over the years – Google, Vodafone, the Arthur Guinness Fund and more – allowing to offer professional counselling through video or text chat.

Cathal Keegan is a registered counselling psychologist with Turn2me. He runs daily online support groups and is one of the professionals taking part in eight free counselling sessions as part of the Engage Programme.

“I was sceptical initially about how it would work for people,” Keegan says, “but what I’ve noticed is that it’s definitely catching people who wouldn’t present [to a counsellor] or wouldn’t speak about whatever issue, and that’s amazing.”

A high number of people access the service from outside Dublin, says Keegan, from areas where service provision is poor, particularly Kerry, parts of Connemara and Donegal. “Counselling is expensive . . . It can be prohibiting due to high costs.”

“One of the big problems with counselling . . . is the DNAs,” Oisín says, “the ‘did not attends’. A lot of services won’t talk about that, so we were looking to see if we can do something online where we maximise attendance and make it attractive. Ultimately, most of the people who need help generally can’t afford counselling.”

He says their model is now as low-cost as you get, but counselling is just one part of it. Its mood diary allows a user to log in and chart their mood, take part in clinical surveys and use group support, while engaging with a counsellor each week, as part of its Engage Programme.

The site has been rolled out with support from the Health Service Executive and recently partnered with, an agriculture website, to publicise its services to rural and farming communities. Crucially, the website can also intervene, in certain circumstances, having developed what Oisín calls “a very strong relationship” with the Garda.

“Last week, a young girl online began ingesting pills and went offline. We managed to intercept that, get the gardaí to go to the house, and she’s grateful now. She’s in professional care,” he says.

It is not just local intervention either. “There was an incident in Falkirk in Scotland, and we were able to go to the gardaí on Pearse Street, they went to Europol, then they went to the local police in Scotland, and that was another potential overdose prevented from happening,” he says.

Anonymity is often criticised when it comes to the internet, with people using it as a mask for communicating negatively, perceiving a lack of repercussions.

But anonymity can also be a positive thing when it comes to engaging with mental-health professionals, providing the user with reassurance about not exposing themselves when they are reaching out for the first time.

Larger forums, such as, “can refer people to a place where they know they are people equipped to deal with it. There are ways to do it responsibly,” Oisín says of the growing professionalism in dealing with mental health online.

The site endeavours to never turn a person away. In a climate of stretched services and increasing pressures on mental health, in this instance turning to someone online with the right qualifications and the correct processes is shedding a brighter light on the role of digital technology on our state of mind.

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