Posting for good: how subjective wellbeing data can enable systems change

updated on 29 July 2021

This article talks about the proactive and preventative mental health system enabled by subjective wellbeing data from the Riposte app.

Mental health is an issue close to my heart. When I got to know Debs and the rest of the team at Riposte, and found out what motivates their work, I realised I’d found kindred spirits. The vision of Riposte – that all decisions factor in the wellbeing of people – is a powerful one. A purpose worth working for. In this post, I talk about some of the challenges of our current mental health system, imagine a possible future that prioritises wellbeing and share what we do at Riposte to move towards that future. I also share some of my own story to show that we should not always leave the burden of asking for help to the individual who needs it. 

TW - this article mentions the topic of suicide.

In this post, we talk about what’s close to our heart, why Riposte exists, our purpose and our vision. This article is part of a series that introduces Riposte, a new social sharing and wellbeing app from Aotearoa New Zealand that uses data for collective wellbeing measurement. The other parts of the series focus on designing social media to be healthy and psychologically safe, using data for good as an alternative social media business model, and aggregated analytics for collective wellbeing.

Needing help and not asking for it.

When I was 19, I was in my first year of university, was heavily involved in my church group, lived with loving parents and two younger siblings I got along with well, and had close friends that I saw a few times a week. And yet, that was one of the worst years of my life. Even now, I can’t explain fully why I wasn’t well, only that I wasn’t. As soon as I was alone, I was either miserable, or apathetic (not feeling anything). Looking back, I can say I was suffering badly from depression and anxiety, but at the time I didn’t recognise that. That also wasn’t the first time. My 14th year had been the same. Back then, my best friend was dealing with trauma from an abusive childhood. Compared to her, I didn’t have any problems. Since there wasn’t anything bad happening to me, I didn’t think I could be doing bad enough to need help, so I didn’t take action to get any. In fact, I didn’t tell anybody at all that I wasn’t well. I just kept it to myself, and nobody noticed. 

In my twenties, things got worse. By the time I reached 22, I had to quit my student job, quit my volunteering work, and somehow figure out how to get better. But I still didn’t ask for help. By this time, I realised I wasn’t well but I didn’t think any of the help I might be able to get would work. I also still doubted that I was doing ‘badly enough’ to need professional help. At the time, I had a family member who was ‘worse’ than me. In my mind, she needed help, but I could work it out by myself. I didn’t know how to live with myself. My mind was wearing me out trying to understand things and I felt very ‘stuck’ in my body. I carefully contemplated the option of suicide, but decided against it. Having chosen to live, but not knowing how, I set out to get better. I still didn’t ask for help.

It took me about 20 years to find ways to deal with my depression and anxiety that work for me. At first, my strategy was to observe and pick up tools wherever I could. I was fortunate to have some friends who were health practitioners and I learned from their knowledge. Later on, I opened up to some close friends and family a few times, but not to ask for help, just to share that I was struggling. They see me as a pretty strong and independent person, and I am from a highly individualistic culture, so they mostly let me figure it out by myself. Now I’m practically an expert on dealing with negative, (circular) thinking, how nutrition, exercise, and music affect my wellbeing, and the power of simply being kind to myself. But I don’t consider this a success story. I certainly would not recommend anyone else to deal with this mostly alone, but I suspect that there are thousands of people out there doing exactly that, because they don’t ask for help.

Mental health services leave the burden of action with the individual.

Mental health challenges in Aotearoa New Zealand are massive. According to the He Ara Oranga report 50 to 80% of us experience mental health or addiction challenges in our lifetime. Each year, one in five of us experience mental illness or significant mental distress. Each year, 20,000 people attempt suicide. The suicide rate is highest for our young people, and Tairāwhiti (where Riposte is based) has the highest youth suicide rates in New Zealand. These numbers are shocking and behind every digit is a real person with a story that affects them and everyone involved with their lives. 

Mental health services are largely reactive, meaning they focus on people with severe and acute issues. Often, people do not get help until they are on the edge, attempting suicide or very seriously disrupting the social fabric around them. Our mental health services are designed to wait until you are bad enough to need help and then hope you will take the steps to get it. The burden of getting help for mental health challenges lies with the person who needs it. While the internet is full of resources that tell people it’s ok to ask for help and encourage them to do so, in the end it’s still up to them.

Here’s the thing, actively reaching out to get help can be really hard when you’re at the point that you need it. In 2017, the Ministry of Health reported that on average only 40% of people that died by suicide had accessed mental health services in the year prior. When people are struggling with depression and anxiety they often retreat, hide their symptoms from others and do not ask for help. There are many reasons for this such as thinking professional help might not work, feeling ashamed, feeling like a burden, or thinking you’re not doing ‘bad enough’ to require professional help. So instead, many people keep their struggles to themselves like I did and stay under the radar of mental health services. It can even be difficult to reach out to friends and family. As a result, it takes much longer than necessary to get better, and in some cases people don’t.  

A multilayered approach to wellbeing support

I like imagining different futures than the future we’re heading towards if we don’t go through some deep changes. One thing I’m particularly passionate about is how our economic system would function if it fundamentally prioritised the wellbeing of our people and planet, instead of prioritising profit and shareholder value. What types of businesses would we be able to create? How would that affect our education system? What about our governments’ decision making? What would our mental health system look like?

What if we had a mental health system that was proactive and preventative? Imagine a multilayered approach in which people are enabled to pick up on signs and symptoms of distress of others and proactively reach out in the short term. A system that tracked wellbeing over time and gathered enough data to detect root causes for issues in the long term. What if this system was part of that bigger system that put the wellbeing of people and planet first?

The vision of Riposte is a world where all decisions take into account the wellbeing of people. To do that we need data. Information on how people are doing. What’s important to them on a daily basis. We need statistics on housing, income, access to education and access to healthy food. But we also need to understand how people are feeling, what they are experiencing, and how that affects them. We need subjective data to gain insights that will enable effective decision making that prioritises people's wellbeing. 

Our mission is to provide organisations with an ongoing source of subjective wellbeing data they need to prioritise people. We have designed a social sharing platform that is healthy and psychologically safe to use. Through it, we gather wellbeing data and provide analytics and reporting to organisations. Our business model is impact value based, doesn’t rely on advertising and people retain ownership and control over their data. We do our work because we believe in a future that puts people and the planet first. We’re experimenting, tinkering, figuring things out as we go along, like any other start up. 

Data driven problem solving: things are not always what they seem

There is a story that Debs (the founder of Riposte) recently told me, about teenage girls and car crime in South Auckland. Debs used to work with the police as an intelligence analyst. She is a massive data nerd and nothing gets her ticking more than an unexplained data phenomenon. So when car crime was increasing and she saw that teenage girls were stealing more cars than ever before, she decided to look into it. She went and met with the girls who had been caught and interviewed them. Since she was a young woman herself at the time (and not in uniform), most of the girls spoke pretty freely to her. After a number of interviews she started seeing a common pattern. The girls were stealing cars not to do burglaries or joyride with their friends (as assumed), but because it was the safest way to get home at night. So using the data to dig deeper, Debs discovered that this wasn’t a car crime problem. This was a problem with the safety of public transport.

"Using Riposte data, government organisations can gain an understanding of people's daily experiences in a way that protects individual privacy and doesn’t burden people with having to fill out a lot of surveys to have their perspective included." 

This is an example of how problems captured or measured by data can have a very different root cause than expected. Having insight into the subjective experience of people is essential to understand what statistics are showing. The same is true for wellbeing. A proactive and preventative wellbeing system needs subjective experiential data from large groups of people. Using Riposte data, government organisations can gain an understanding of people's daily experiences in a way that protects individual privacy and doesn’t burden people with having to fill out a lot of surveys to have their perspective included. This data can prompt governments and other organisations to ask new questions and explore new approaches to mental health challenges. 

Moving towards a proactive and preventative approach to wellbeing

Coming back to the short term, to that person who needs help and isn’t asking for it. Riposte can offer a psychologically safe space for that person to give signals to those around them. The Riposte App is a lot like social media, but without the toxic traits. It helps contributors to nurture the daily habit of reflection. A person who is struggling with their mental health may not be able to undertake all the steps needed to get help, but they can continue to reflect and share their daily highs and lows. That person may choose to post privately if they are not yet ready to share how they are really feeling with their followers. In that case, their post will still feed into overall wellbeing data. If their posts feed into reports of local organisations they are a part of, like a school or a workplace, they can notice it as a trend if more people feel similar. Those organisations can then take action to improve their members’ wellbeing. And when the person is ready, they can post to their followers.

The Riposte App is designed without the option to comment or share posts. The only response for followers is the support button. This intention behind this is to encourage people to reach out to each other offline, in person or through a phone call. Sometimes, all you need is for someone to notice that you’re not well, to pick up on the signals you’re sending and to reach out. 

We hope that the work we do at Riposte can contribute to a proactive and preventative wellbeing approach in Aotearoa New Zealand. We get out of bed in the morning because we believe it can, and we know that our country has the talent and skills to make this happen. 2021 being what it is, the world is looking to New Zealand for hope, for examples of post-covid life that show we can change the way our world works. I know that ‘hope’ sounds cheesy and idealistic. I’m ok with that. Without hope, we open the door to being cynical and jaded. That’s not the mindset we need to regenerate the planet, which is fundamental to our wellbeing. We can’t afford to ridicule hope, just like we can’t afford to continue with business as usual in our mental health system and in our economic system. 

Riposte is based in Taiki E!, our Impact House here in Tairāwhiti where we are tinkering away at what we call the Aroha Economy. It’s an economic system based on radical generosity. We don’t know what it will look like, so we are exploring, experimenting, having fun and holding space for new approaches and for each other. If this speaks to you, get in touch or come in for a coffee. We’d love to meet you. 

About the author: Mariska van Gaalen is a Dutch-Kiwi who moved back to Aotearoa New Zealand after 26 years abroad. Her background is in sustainable development, mostly as a researcher and writer. She has settled in Tairāwhiti and is keen to work more locally supporting positive impact projects and ventures. She currently writes for Riposte, is learning how to grow oyster mushrooms zero waste, and does the occasional stint sanding houses. Mariska is also part of the crew at Tāiki E! Impact House, where Riposte is based.

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