Digital outreach/reaching out digitally: Online sharing in the face of emotional distress

What is the research about?

The web has opened up diverse possibilities for supporting people who are experiencing emotional distress, including those who are describing suicidal thoughts and behaviours. These range from formal support services to informal friendship, affinity or interest groups through which individuals may be offered or seek practical or emotional support.

There is a growing body of research on the nature of emotional support online (Sandaunet, 2008; Horne and Wiggins, 2009; Yoo et al., 2014) but studies of how trust in extremis is established online in a multi-layered way (Brownlie, Howson and Green, 2008) – that is, textually, through interaction and within specific organisational contexts – are underdeveloped. This project seeks to address this gap by asking the following questions:

  • When, why and with what consequences do people look to online sources of help and support when experiencing emotional distress?
  • How are trust and empathy established (and lost) in the context of emotional distress in different online environments?
  • How do others respond to online communications suggesting apparent suicidal thoughts or behaviour?


How is the research being carried out?

The research team will be looking at empathy and trust in relation to two kinds of web-based interaction: use of Samaritans’ email-based, one-to-one emotional support; and posts with reference to suicide in one-to-many online spaces such as Twitter.

Specifically, the team will be conducting:

  • online interviews with users of the email service and volunteers to explore their experiences of different forms of online emotional support
  • ethnographic work on aspects of the Samaritans organisation concerned with online provision.  This will involve digital (online survey, interviews, email analysis) and offline methods (observation, documentary analysis)
  • analysis of how Twitter is being used to discuss (and respond to) suicidal thoughts and behaviours

Drawing on sociological work on emotions, personal relationships and social media the team is aiming to explore trust and empathy through interactionist and narrative methods as well as develop an analytical approach for working across quantitative and qualitative analyses of Twitter data.


Contact us:


Dr. Julie Brownlie

Dr. Frances Shaw