The best effing lonely – social media and #mentalhealth

The following is the text of a talk given by Mark Brown as part of a panel discussion at London’s Dragon Cafe on February 2nd 2015 addressing the topic ‘We need to talk about… The impact of of technology and digital culture on mental health’

Hello.  I’m @markoneinfour off of that twitter.  I do mental health stuff and I bloody love social media, even when I really hate how some people use it.

I wouldn’t be here talking to you if I hadn’t come across the madosphere, the mental health blogosphere (what we had before we did twitter).  It was people like my fellow panelist Seaneen Molloy-Vaughn who showed me that people like me could own language and ideas about mental health and that it was possible for ‘us’ to define an identity that wasn’t limited by what ‘they’ said we could and couldn’t say. It was the madosphere that inspired the mental health magazine One in Four that I ran for six and a bit years and which still inspires the mental health and digital stuff I do now (which I’ll tell you more about later!)

 So first thing: social media is here, and rather than being something new, it’s like telly, it’s like radio, it’s like text messages, phone calls, cinema, telegrams, the printing press, telephones.  Just more so.

The social web is a lot older than you’d think.  Think widespread blogging is new?  Blogger the blog platform launched in August 2000.  Think tweeting or facebooking is a new thing?  Twitter launched in July 2006, a few months before facebook got its first newsfeed and started to look like the facebook we know and love (or hate).  Youtube launched in November 2005.  Social media is weird.  It feels ‘new’ at the same time as feeling like it’s been around forever.

We still struggle to work out where it fits in. Opinion varies from ‘it’s completely irrelevant’ at one end of the spectrum to ‘it’s the most dangerous thing that has ever happened in the world EVAH’ at the other.

Social media doesn’t just happen in front of a desk top PC.  It happens in your pocket or bag, it happens on the bus, it happens in hospital (if you’re lucky), it can happen anywhere you’re getting an internet signal.   The price of things like tablets has dropped through the floor over the last couple of years and the UK has a surprising amount of free wifi hotspots.

People from all around the world who experience mental health difficulties are ‘meeting’ each other in social media.  We’re reading blogs written by each other.  We’re watching youtube videos starring each other.  We’re listening to audio recorded by each other.  We talking to each other in facebook groups, in comments sections of websites, on twitter…  Anywhere there is a space for people to share, speak and comment there is a space for people with mental health difficulties to run into each other.

According to an Ipsos Mori survey carried out for the National Audit Office published March 2013, thirty seven percent of of people with a declared disability were offline compared with fifteen percent of people without a declared disability.  We do not currently know how many disabled people, or people with mental health difficulties are regular social media users.

Still, though, social media has become a space where people with mental health difficulties are finding each other in large numbers

And, in the tradition of large families finally managing to meet for the first time, we’re finding all of the things we all have in common and all of the the things where we really have nothing in common at all.

I think we’re seeing the beginning of a real mental health public opinion, where different groups of people assemble around different ideas.

It used to be really difficult to organise something or to find something out.  Most of the time you needed to know lots of other people and they needed to know lots of things.  Your ability to publicise what you did depended on your budget and access to a photocopier.  Your social relationships were limited by who you could actually run into where you lived.  Loads of people with mental health difficulties never ran into anyone who experienced similar things to themselves unless they were lucky or currently in hospital or accessing some kind of care or support.

For many of us, our mental health difficulties have been misunderstood and in some cases shameful facts of our lives.  Unless we were lucky and met people near us, in the past we have tended to communicate vertically with public services and charities providing us mental health support (evaluation, consultation). Social media lets us go horizontal, talking ‘peer-to-peer’ with others with similar experiences across the world.

Social media, has created conditions where people who were previously isolated or marginalised can meet each other ‘face-to-face’ to share, debate, argue, build, destroy, criticise, praise, organise and develop.  It’s also created spaces where mental health difficulty isn’t hidden.

Social media then, is a space where we can learn from each other, debate with each other, band together and try to make change with each other and challenge the idea that who we are, want we want and what are lives mean should be defined by others.

For many of us social media at its best is a space where we meet with other like minds, discuss, share and learn, both about others and ourselves.

What’s interesting is that social media is, still, somewhere there is a more level playing field between established ‘professionals’ and the rest of us.  Some mental health bloggers have more readers than the trusts that provide them services.  Some people with mental health difficulties on twitter spark far larger debates than professionals in the same space.

Social media is still, for the time being, a place where we can find power we might not access in other ways and other places.

Most of social media happens to some extent ‘in public’ or at the very least involves interacting with people, often strangers.  People keep talking about the risk of social media.  There’s no doubt this risk exists, but it is, sadly, no different from the risks that exist in the offline world.  Women experience misogynistic abuse online and offline too. Racism, sexism, homophobia, hideously prejudiced ideas about mental health, all exist online too. But without risk there’s no possibility of something new.

Social media is here to stay.  It can be awesome.  Much of my life after my period of ill health and unemployment is, in some way, related to taking risks in social media.  I literally wouldn’t be doing the speech today if I hadn’t posted some bits of writing online back in 2002 and got talking to people.

There are huge potential benefits and also sometimes huge drawbacks.  When awful stuff happens on social media it doesn’t feel like it happened in a distant computer place.  It feels like it happened whereever you checked your facebook or looked at twitter.

We need to stop asking ‘is social media bad for our wellbeing?’ and ask ‘how can we make sure people are getting what they want and need from social media?’

I just want to finish on a brilliant tweet I saw someone retweet on twitter.  I know nothing about the person who tweeted it, nothing about where it’s from,  but I thought it was a good place to end.  It’s from:

‏@NJPsychDoc and the tweet goes:

My Therapist said that twitter is for lonely people. That dumb-ass idiot doesnt realize this is the best fucking lonely ive been in years.

Mark Brown is development director of Social Spider CIC. He is @markoneinfour on twitter

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One Response to The best effing lonely – social media and #mentalhealth

  1. Kat says:

    I was at this talk and couldn’t agree more!

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