Following on from my last post, which was about surviving Facebook when depressed, I shall now look at other platforms, concentrating on online support forums, but touching on blogging(!) and vlogging too. There are thousands of forums on the internet, catering for every problem under the sun (including being allergic to it). In an age where 36.2% of the average British person’s time is spent online, compared to 34.8% sleeping* it’s not such a stretch to think this would be a much bigger percentage for those with mental health illnesses. I know I average around 9.5hrs online (mobile/pc/tv) daily, usually whilst multi-tasking I must point out, which would put me at 39.6%. And I don’t do that much internet purchasing. My sleep average changes though, whether I am depressed or not; it is usually either 37.5% or 31.4%. I think I might do some research into the correlation of sleep patterns, internet usage and depression.
Online support forums are a great way to connect with others who are dealing with mental health issues. Depression (in particular) can be as isolating as agoraphobia and because humans are social mammals, we need some form of social interaction everyday to maintain optimal equilibrium and connectivity with our peers. These forums provide vital hubs for those who are unable to leave their homes much (if at all) – depression, disabilities, agoraphobia, social anxiety etc. can all leave us feeling trapped. Forums can offer a chance to chat with others experiencing the same things; finding those who can relate to our own situation is an important discovery. It helps us feel less alone and that someone else just ‘gets it’ on a level that ‘normies’ really don’t. It may help foster an ‘us & them’ mentality within the site, but at least you can find somewhere you feel you belong. And those who can offer advice on situations frequently do, on subjects from dealing with family issues, medication queries and experiences, sex and relationships – anything really, which really helps foster a sense of community.
However, this sense of community can be tempered by the fact that many people choose to remain anonymous, going by a handle (such as Wysteria!) and this has a dual effect. By remaining unknown, we can pour out our hearts and souls, every last detail of our problems, creating a veritable verbal diarrhea – and it’s so easy to do so when it feels unaccountable. But then this can be turned on it’s head: how well can you know, connect and trust someone when you don’t even know their name? There are times when I want to blurt out to the world “This is me! I want you to know me!” and that I need that further, deeper connection. And then there are other times when I am so thankful that I haven’t.
The first forum I joined, in 2012, was Depression Forums. This is a vast forum specially catering for supporting those with Depression and related issues, and it has subforums for other mental illnesses. It’s membership (as of 15.08.16) stands at just over 112,000 That’s 112 thousand depressed and hurting souls reaching out across borders and seas in search of comfort, advice and understanding on just this one site! I know that in 2012 this Forum helped to save my life. I received advice about medications, acceptance, understanding and solidarity at a time when I needed it most, especially regarding my self-harm in that whilst we know it’s not an ideal situation, it’s a short term solution that can prevent us from committing the ultimate one.
I met some wonderfully intelligent and perceptive people there, those that I still think of and sporadically check in on. But I found that eventually, the very nature of the forum was working against me, and that maybe my personality wasn’t the best fit. I realised that whilst there were many fantastic threads that helped me during the really dark days (the ‘3 Things Positivity Thread’ was invaluable) the incessant flow of severely depressed people explaining their circumstances and feelings only served to depress me further. There were all these people hurting and as a people-pleaser I felt like I ought to be reaching out to them and help, but realistically there is only so much one can do from behind a computer screen. It became too easy to wallow in my own depression and give it too much presence and therefore drown in other people’s pain, rather than be able to use the forum to counteract my own brain. That’s not to say it would happen to you, or to anyone else, but merely that my own personality made that forum counter-productive for me. And so I left for pastures new.
Which brings me on to another issue with online forums: sometimes people disappear. Most of the time people give notice if they’re leaving for a while, which is great because it prevents us from worrying. When you’re dealing with depressed and suicidal people, the start reality is that some people suffer too greatly and choose to leave this world. So when your online forum friends simply vanish, it is perfectly possible that they have committed suicide – and so we worry. We care. We are scared for them and for us. In addition, chronic self harm can sometimes be unintentionally fatal (as has been tragically proven by someone on one of my current forums). We are left wondering why, mourning their loss and are left to comfort each other because we are not close enough IRL to be able to grieve more conventionally.
I opened myself up to such worry when I befriended ‘Rob’ online through Depression Forums. He wanted someone to email who would help him through the chronic anxiety he was experiencing during the 2012 US elections. As a handicapped veteran with depression and PTSD he was terrified of a Republican victory. He feared his financial support and health care would be revoked and he would end up homeless. Of course, as a UK citizen, there was nothing I could do but listen, but that was just what Rob wanted – a sounding board for his worries. He even begged me to confirm that I wouldn’t vanish on him in his time of need. I assured him that I wouldn’t, however, a month after the election, my job obviously done, Rob did just that. He still wasn’t in a good place in his head, so I worried. I emailed again but got no reply. Eventually I had to accept that our friendship was over, it’s purpose fulfilled. Now, as the US elections have rolled around again, my thoughts have inevitably returned to Rob and I wonder how he is coping, what with the threat of Trump-asaurus Rex out to destroy civilisation. I guess I’ll never know.
For those of us with any form of social anxiety, it becomes far too easy to make the
internet ones only form of social interaction. Social media means you can stay in ‘contact’ with friends and family without even getting out of bed, or getting dressed or using the dreaded telephone (my adrenaline levels spike every time the damn thing rings). For those with agoraphobia the internet must have been a dream come true – anything you need can be bought online and so you don’t need to leave the house if it is all too much. But on the flipside, this can only ever lead to further isolation and feed into the vicious cycles of mental illness. If you’re not going to go out, then why bother getting dressed? If no-one is going to be in your physical presence, does it really matter if you don’t feel like having a shower? Or brushing your teeth? Well, yes actually. Not taking proper care of oneself makes you feel embarrassed about your state, and adds to the sense of worthlessness that depression foists upon you. It’s too easy to spiral down. This is where skype/kik/vlogging can really help. The fact you are still having to present yourself to the world means that some facets of normality have to be maintained and so can help prevent the slide towards lonely oblivion.
Blogging (and vlogging) are, naturally, a fantastic way to speak your mind and discuss anything in more detail. As I’m trying to do here, blogs can be used to educate, increase awareness, to be a catharsis, and to connect with like-minded people. And so far, it has all been a positive experience. But of course the downside is that by opening oneself up so publically, it’s easy to fall victim to trolls and serious bullying. In 2009 an online friend of mine was vlogging on youtube about her fight with anorexia. At 5″9 and 95lbs she was obviously anorexic and one particularly vicious troll targeted her and her vulnerability. He stole her videos, creating fake profiles and channels, humiliating her, calling her worthless and crazy. She went to youtube and got them taken down, but he still kept reposting them. She begged him to stop, but he tracked her down through her various online social medias and threatened to notify her college, her work and her family the details of what she was posting. She had to go to the police and he was eventually charged with harassment. All of this additional stress was clearly detrimental to her already fragile state. Thankfully she was able to put it behind her, but it proves just how easy it is to bully people from behind a screen, with slim chance of repercussions. If you do fall victim to trolling you can either choose to ignore it and not rise to the bait or, depending on the severity of abuse take it to the authorities.
It is clear that the internet is not going anywhere and that modern life revolves around it so completely that we have to accept the bad with the good and navigate through it. There are plenty of guides around on how to do that, but here is my tuppence of advice for depressed people about using the internet:
- Don’t rely on it exclusively. A forced daily trip to the corner shop including anxiety will do you far more good in the long run than holing up at home and buying everything at Tescos online.
- Take advantage of skype for your long-distance friends and family; those that you can’t visit easily. For those that are within easy reach text, facebook etc are great but nothing beats a drink and a chat in a café or pub.
- Beware of the Trolls. They have been proved to exist and will prey on the vulnerable. Try not to feed them!
- Forums are great for support, but be vigilant about how you are using them. If they start feeding into your problems instead of helping, then re-evaluate.
- Anonymity is great, but think about how much you are willing to share about your life and with whom.
- If you get emotionally attached to online people, they will feel as dear as IRL friends, but they may not have the same loyalty to you. In otherwords, the ups and downs of online friends can be as hurtful (and as fulfilling) as ‘real-life’ friends.
If you made it all the way to the bottom of this, thanks for sticking with me and I hope it’s been of some use!