Inspire is an amazing organisation that understands the value of integrating offline activities with an online community.
…will create unprecedented opportunities for young people to help themselves and help others by combining the power of technology with the face-to-face involvement of young people.
Inspire delivers three national programs, but I just want to look closely at ReachOut which helps a very sensitive community – depressed, suicidal teenagers or teenagers into self-harm.
Reach Out! is an Internet-based service that helps young people get through tough times.
It was established in response to escalating rates of youth suicide and designed to utilise the opportunities presented by the Internet while complementing other existing sources of support for young people.
The Reach Out! website is divided into three main areas: Finding Help, Chilling Out and Sorting Stuff Out. These three areas encourage help seeking behaviour among young people and improve their mental health by providing information across a range of mental health issues, where to turn for support and counselling services in the community, and personal stories from other young people and role models who have been able to “get through tough times”.
The service is directly informed by a comprehensive youth engagement program involving a Youth Advisory Board and Youth Ambassadors who play a central
role in the design, development and marketing of the service.
The Youth Advisory Board and Ambassadors (Royab) have my utmost respect – its one thing to run an army of volunteers in RolePlaying Games or other “fun” communities, but it takes a special kind of youth to volunteer time in a stressful area. ReachOut provides some excellent customisation features and a discussion forum:
Being a Reach Out! member means you can do things that casual Reach Out! users can’t – like have your own private journal, bookmark your favourite pages and download a Reach Out! screensaver. You’ll also be automatically subscribed to RAW – Reach Out!’s own newsletter and you can share your stories with other Reach Out! readers through the On the Airwaves forum.
So I joined and went to the forums and this is what I was told:
Welcome to the Reach Out! Online Community This community is for people aged 16-25 and is a space moderated by Reach Out! Crew and a team of Youth Ambassadors.
It’s a place you can share your experiences, explore issues and find support and information. These forums are also a place to inspire and support others – to help themselves and help others through tough times.
The Reach Out! Online Community is open every day Monday to Thursdays from 4pm-8pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time!). It will be closed on NSW public holidays. If you are suicidal or need to talk to someone now ring Kids Help Line (1800 55 1800) or Lifeline (131 114). They are both anonymous, 24 hour services that won’t appear on your phone bill. You might also like to check out the theWanting to end your life and Deliberate Self-harm fact sheets.
Otherwise, please come back when we’re open and join the discussion!
Reach Out! Crew
Now here is where I’m stumped – these poor darlings cause me a lot of work on large games forums. They invariably choose the middle of the night, when all good moderators should be asleep (‘cept usually our volunteer mods are ’round the clock), incite massive debates, bring out the trolls (lots of banning to be done) and generally cause mayhem. However, and its a big ‘however’, the teen is usually overwhelmed with support, advice, and sharing of pain by their peers – its worth every hour spent cleaning up the mess afterwards. Consider what Angelynn Grant said in her Editorial Review of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places:
Message boards and chatrooms allowed people to connect with others–so crucial in times of trouble–to share breaking news, find ways to help, or post personal stories.
By trusting the youth to help each other and letting them run ‘amok’ you truly allow them to make their own community and its not imposed from outside. Derek Powazek, the man behind DesignForCommunity (2001) said it so well:
Trust your users. Giving your users community features means giving them power — power to leave their voice on your site, power to form an intimate, personal connection with the site and their fellow users. Don’t do this unless you’re prepared to treat them with respect, be honest with them, and trust them with your site. This can be hard. As the site creator you may feel compelled to control everything. Don’t give in to the dark side! To raise a happy community, you’ve got to trust its members.
But can we equate raising ‘a happy community’ with depressed and selfharming teenagers? Isn’t it dangerous to trust children who are on the site in the first place because of intense emotional pain? What does the law say? Would the kids post on a ReachOut forum or would they post on their NeoPets or World of Warcraft forum first, somewhere that attracted them with compelling content? I would love to have Inspire/ReachOut comment back on the process they went through in deciding to limit the forums to four hours a day.
There is no doubt in my mind that as a portal, ReachOut provides a critical and inspirational information channel to the teens in tough times. They provide timely dissemination of helpful tips and advice and are clearly very successful (90,975 visitors in August). My comments relate to the two-way flow of communication between peers specifically on forums – a controversial and challenging minefield regarding how to provide a caring and nurturing community in the pixel/text based world of online. Which is why a discussion on these issues is so confrontational and worthwhile.