James Boyd and a Tech Solution to Systemic Shortcomings
Two days ago, March 16, marked the anniversary of James Boyd’s death. Just over a year ago, Boyd was killed by Albuquerque police officers responding to a call of a “homeless mentally ill man.” Boyd, who had a history of paranoid schizophrenia, was camping in the wilderness and was unarmed save two camping knives. Nonetheless, instead of sending a health professional to help him, police and SWAT shot him with rifles – six lethal rounds and a multitude of bean bag rounds – and sic’d a police dog on him. James Boyd was in the wilderness, posing no threat to anyone except himself.
So why was such extraneous force used? And why is there such a disturbing trend of police officers killing homeless people?
It’s because of a systemic incapability to effectively help those suffering from mental affliction. There are 42.5 million people suffering from mental illness in the United States, 40 million suffering specifically from anxiety disorders, and yet a stigma against supporting mental-health persists.
The pressures of everyday life still weigh down and traditional methods of support remain costly – even with Obamacare. While technology contributes in several ways to the cycle of stressful living, what if the accessibility of social media could be used to treat the same anxieties it contributes to?
Enter Glen Moriarty, creator and founder of 7 Cups of Tea, a site providing easy-access to emotional support and conversational therapy since June, 2013 that released a downloadable app last October.
The site, a 24 hour service focused on support through an online messenger, released a counterpart-app through the Apple AppStore and Google Play for Android last October at the requests of many users among its rising following.
The core concept promotes the principles of connection and community that many social-media platforms were seemingly founded on, utilizing online and text-messaging to connect users to “Listeners” trained via modern methods of emotional support. The sheer average-volume of 90,000 conversations a week, verified by Moriarty, has led to several thousand downloads of the App’s beta later, as well as to an interesting interview with Moriarty on his unique approach.
You are the creator and founder of 7 Cups of Tea. Where did the inspiration for the site/app come from, in the name as well as the concept?
The name is based on the Chinese poem. It’s an old poem and the suggestion is that each cup of tea brings a different level of healing. It’s not like a cup of coffee or a cup of wine, it’s soothing and peaceful and like something you would do with a friend repeatedly. The inspiration came from doing research on psychologist on behaviors that are offline that have yet moved online. For example, dating behaviors are offline and then moved online. My wife is a therapist, and she was talking to me one day and as I felt better, it struck me; what do people do who don’t have a therapist or a spouse? We should create something where anybody who needs to talk about something can go online or on the app and get support.
How long has it been available in Apple App Store?
Glen: It’s been available since late October in the Apple store and since January in the Google play store.
In what ways does your App both compare and differ to conventional 24hour Crisis Call Lines?
Glen: “That’s a great question. One, we’re not a crisis service. We’re an emotional support service. If you just want to be cared for and talk to a non-judgmental listener, that’s what we’re here for. If you’re in crisis we refer you to the crisis line. Secondly, everything is messaging and there’s no phone component to it. We had both the voice and the phone component to start, but 99.8% of the people only use messaging so we just gave up the phone component. In addition, usually on a crisis line it’s not an ongoing place to get support really, it’s to help through crisis. They don’t really want to help you continue to grow as a person; whereas we want to help you continue to grow as a person and welcome you as a part of our community and help you develop later in life.”
What inspired the app’s ability to connect to a specific “Listener” and do you feel this helps more thoroughly accomplish the goal?
Glen: “Yes absolutely. We have Over 80,000 listeners now, and you can search listeners by issue too. For example, if you’re coping with college, you can find students who’ve indicated they’ve also struggled or somebody who has gone through depression and can help as well. And if English isn’t your first language, we have listeners from 150 countries providing support in 130 languages. So no matter your language or your issue, you can find somebody who’s been through what you’ve been through, and can get support.”
Your mission statement specifically makes note of issues regarding “…depression, anxiety, breakup advice…” In tackling many issues of the modern youth, what are your views on the validity of supporting mental-health in this generation?
Glen: “I think it’s a huge and growing problem and I think we’re not doing a great job of it as an industry. There are a lot of adults and young adults in general who simply don’t get help because of a stigma. Lots of people struggle quietly alone. And we’ve not quite figured out a way to truly get them support, which is why we made 7 Cups of Tea anonymous, because if you don’t have to identify yourself you don’t have to feel shame about your issue and if it’s in your pocket you don’t have to worry about being seen. You can just get the support you need. We need to do a lot more to reach people, and become more innovative to reach people, because we’re not doing as good of a job as we can be doing.
In light of that, how do you believe the connection of social media to support impacts the modern generation if you believe we collectively need innovation to do a better job?
Glen: “I think social media is really huge since different social media services have different jobs. Facebook is a directory, Snap-chat is for fun, but I think in a lot of these, the same issues that happen online, people don’t say “hey I’m struggling right now” or that they need help or support. But interestingly, on Yik Yak, which is anonymous, they do. The problem is of course is there isn’t a way to help them there. So where I see us falling is using social tools in a way to help people. Interestingly, we launched before Yik Yak, and there have been other anonymous apps. Whisper was an anonymous app around before Yik Yak, but the inspiration for [7 Cups of Tea] was really Alcoholics Anonymous, the way to break stigma.”
What parties have helped or are helping facilitate the creation of this App, both technologically and psychologically, given that the site links a test for clinical depression any visitor/user/downloader can take?
For us, we primarily listen to the people using the site. We consult with a number of experts doing work with a number of researchers on the platform itself on the best way to support people. In terms of product development, a fair amount of it is consulting with experts and listening to our users.
In light of the new Note-taking feature on the app, how have you been considering altering the app as downloads increase?
This is a solid first-version of the app. Our users were strongly asking for an app so we had this version built, but this isn’t going to be the final version. Really by the end of the month, we should have a version that is much easier to navigate, and part of that will include
Some people may argue that technology still facilitates a level of detachment. What do you think?
Technology absolutely isolates us. The question is, can you use technology in a way that doesn’t isolate us and instead increases intimacy and connection and health? I don’t think we’re going to reverse the trends on technology, so we have to learn to leverage it in a way that better helps one another.
What are the criteria through which you base hiring/recruiting your Listeners?
Most are people who have come from the site, who have been helped, and want to give back. They go through a training course, with video tests and quiz based components, and a robot that acts like a distressed person. They have to respond in a manner that is appropriate, and if they pass they enroll in a program with over 242 different levels with verified practice chats.
What do you think of this App’s relevance to student life?
I think students are going through a lot of stress these days, and the statistics are pretty clear that they’re not getting as much support as they need because of stigma and convenience. We have tens of thousands of students on the site every week, because it’s anonymous and easy to use.