Suppose you find a cafe where lots of people with mental health problems hang out. Some of them go off into private nooks, but the majority sit round tables. They’re out in the open area with their cappuccinos and chai lattes, so technically anyone could overhear if they chose, but to all intents and purposes they are having frank, semi-private chats. One of the things they talk about openly, for mutual support, is their experience of suicidal feelings. Thoughts of suicide are common in the general population but disclosure can often be met with shock or inappropriate action like an unnecessary 999 call, so people like the cafe’s feeling of safety and freedom. Part of its charm is being a space away from family, colleagues and everyday friends who often wouldn’t understand.
Then one day a Mr Sam turns up. Mr Sam is a bit of an expert on suicide; he’s spent his life training others to give comfort and support to the suicidal via phone, text and email. Only Mr Sam, he’s not comfortable with the cafe. He’s anxious that people might be talking to each other about suicide while their nearest and dearest who don’t frequent the cafe much, and the nice doctors and nurses who just want to help, might never know.
Troubled by this, he sets up a booth at the cafe door offering a brand new service. Anyone approaching the booth can point out people they have an interest in. Mr Sam will then put a tiny microphone on the Subject, and if they start talking openly about suicide Mr Sam will gather the data and phone it through to the Interested Party. Obviously as it’s an open cafe the Interested Party could just hang around in the cafe or pop in from time to time, or even ask the Subject how they’re doing, but Mr Sam wants to make it easier for vulnerable people to be watched. For their own good.
Having set up his booth, Mr Sam gets up on a box and addresses the cafe, explaining the virtues of his scheme and letting everyone know that he has also notified the media of his wonderful new idea.
Mr Sam then finds himself deluged with questions.
Q Will Mr Sam tell the Subject he’s putting a mic on them?
A Nope, he’ll do it in secret, because it’s for their own good.
Q Will Mr Sam tell the Subject they are apparently a matter of concern to any Interested Party?
A No, because it’s for their own good.
Q Will Mr Sam notify the Subject that he’s collecting and phoning through data about them?
Q Will Mr Sam ask the Interested Party what business they have listening in to the Subject?
Q So they could be someone who wishes the Subject harm and enjoys knowing they’re in crisis? A bully or an internet troll?
Q So they could be a nosy family member that the Subject is really not keen on talking to about their mental health?
Q So they could be a stalker or abusive partner who could exploit the Subject’s suicidality to frighten them more or insinuate themselves back into their lives?
Q So they could be a journalist?
Mr Sam sets up his magical booth on Wednesday. All day people approach him outlining their discomfort, unhappiness and downright fear of his helpful scheme. People quickly produce pamphlets about how Orwellian Mr Sam’s idea seems, how unsafe they feel, how the scheme may even be illegal.
By Thursday, the café’s already a little quieter. Some mental health folk have gone into private rooms and locked the doors. Some have gone home to mull over whether they can ever feel safe in the cafe again; some have already left for good. Some are still sipping their coffee but are subdued, quiet, avoiding talking about their true feelings because they don’t know who might be listening.
In the interim, Mr Sam’s made a video explaining what a great idea his booth is and how pleased he is with its “reach”. And I’m left wondering if the cafe can ever be safe and vibrant again.