This week, teenage girls traveled to Brigham Young University for the college’s fourth annual Girls Cybersecurity Camp.
This year’s camp theme was “Girls Break the Internet,” geared toward helping camp attendees learn beginning computer-related concepts.
On Friday morning, the camp presented a panel hosted by three of the people behind the SafeUT app, an app designed to help people in crisis. Users can talk to or text with licensed clinical social workers if they are concerned about their own mental health or that of a family member or friend, and it’s completely confidential. The panelists discussed how the app came to be and then answered questions from camp attendees.
Missy Larsen, the founding chair of SafeUT, previously worked as the Attorney General’s Office chief of staff. She describe the process of the app development as “divine” and “amazing.”
The genesis of SafeUT started when a Colorado program called “Safe to Talk” came across her desk in 2014. The app allowed people to call in and talk to the attorney general’s office, but Larsen felt it wasn’t quite the program Utah was looking for.
Larsen worked with Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and the first legislation that would later become SafeUT passed in 2014. The app as it is today launched in 2017.
“It started meaning much more,” app developer John DeGrey said. Now the information technology manager at the University of Utah, DeGrey said he actually dropped out of grad school to work on the app full time. He’s since returned and completed grad school.
Will Leavitt, one of SafeUT’s current managers, emphasized the idea that technology like SafeUT can save lives. Technology saved his life, Leavitt said — when he was a young man in college, he said he wrote a Facebook post that alerted his friends, who contacted his parents. His parents took him to the hospital.
SafeUT, Leavitt said, is a faster way for people to have that kind of life-saving intervention. And more ways to use technology to save lives are still being developed. DeGrey said the app is just the tip of the iceberg.
“There’s been a lot of great strides on trying to figure out and solve the suicide problem in the state in the last five years, but it’s still taking time,” DeGrey said. “We’re hoping that things like machine learning, artificial intelligence and natural language processing can accelerate this to better understand the root cause.”
One possibility, he said, is that machine learning may someday be able to detect or determine the tone of voice in a text. But what really makes it work, he said, is the unity of different organizations, including state legislators and agencies, supporting SafeUT.
“The secret sauce of SafeUT is that the Attorney General’s Office, representing law enforcement, UNI (University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute) representing mental health, and the board of education all came together and formed a partnership and are working together,” DeGrey said.
Beyond helping camp attendees recognize ways technology can help people’s lives, and even save them, the goal was for the young women to know what resources are available to them as well.
“It’s critical for them to know first that they can get ... individual support, that SafeUT is there for them, it’s there for their families, it’s their for their friends,” Larsen said. “We like them to know what resources are available for their own mental health or possible crisis.”
Once they know that, Larsen said, they are better prepared to “give back” and try to change the world in positive ways with technology.
“Technology makes it so people can connect,” Larsen said. “That is what we’re missing in this world is connectivity.”
River, a 14-year-old who attended the camp for the third time this year, said she found it interesting to learn about how the SafeUT app and technology in general can be used to help people in “real life.”
“I think it would be a really cool opportunity to help people and still be able to use your skills and get paid,” she said. “I feel like it would just be a more rewarding job experience overall.”
The SafeUT app with the Crisis Text and Tip Line is free to download. The online website currently only works for submitting tips. According to the app description, the crisis line staff are equipped to deal with emotional crises, grief and loss, drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues, self-harm and suicidal behavior.
“(SafeUT has) become a really critical tool,” DeGrey said.