2015 note: I wrote this in 2010 while I was working at the mental health charity Rethink, but left there in late 2014.
I should feel very guilty. Every day I deliberately try to bring people with mental health problems onto Facebook, Twitter and online forums, where their social skills will wither and where they will be a target for scammers and stalking ne’er-do-wells. Well, actually I don’t feel guilty at all, but managing websites for a mental health charity can feel like existing across parallel universes. In Universe A, a worried society regards the internet – or more specifically social websites like Facebook and Twitter – as a sort of digital knotweed, a useless, suffocating, unstoppable blight. In this dimension, social websites isolate and infantilise us by providing “constant reassurance that you are listened to, recognised, and important“, as says neurologist Baroness Susan Greenfield. And they reveal far too much about people – private, exploitable things uncovered by misfortune or criminality, and unbearably banal deeds exposed all too deliberately by the “inadequate, pimpled and single” dullards that get Andrew Marr’s goat.
But over in Universe B, it’s considerably nicer. Here, where I work, Facebook helps people confront and cope with serious problems, Twitter creates nurturing friendships, and online forums give comfort to distressed people. I manage RethinkTalk, [2015 edit: sadly this was scrapped after I left the job] mental illness charity Rethink’s online forum, and see the flipside of tabloid panic – social media as a thriving support network for people affected by mental health issues. This and similar websites can be a social lifeline for many, and no matter what commentators like Janet Street Porter (‘depression is the new trendy illness’) say, mental illness is the last taboo in the shop. For example, a survey of ours showed that nowadays most people would rather come out as gay than admit to having a mental health problem. We need to eliminate this shame and prejudice about mental illness – and social media is perfect for the job.
The internet’s accursed anonymity can be the saviour of people who want to talk about mental health problems. Online, people ‘come out’ as mentally ill in safety – and sometimes in the presence of people who might unthinkingly categorize them as a nutter, psycho or schizo. Time to Change, England’s mental health anti-stigma campaign, found that after joining Facebook many more people become willing to tell their family and friends about their mental health problem. It also found that, as a result of joining the campaign’s Facebook page, seven in ten feel more able to speak about their mental health with people they fear will discriminate. The great thing is, this feeling of safety in virtual meeting places works both ways. Those who think of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia as something from a horror movie can have contact with people affected by it, and discover the less melodramatic truth. In other words we need to bring far more people together on social websites, not fewer.
Of course, it’s not all making friends and breaking down barriers. Many of the people I encounter are positive about the role of social media (saying of RethinkTalk, “I need this, to know that I am not alone”). Yet they also mention the role that conspiracy websites can play in stoking delusional beliefs and other negative aspects. But, to bring back Baroness Greenfield’s concerns about social media’s mollycoddling “reassurance that you are listened to, recognised, and important” – yes, and why not? That is a nourishment that many people affected by mental illness lack.
The assumption that Facebook and other social sites are just some trivial and dangerous indulgence of a spoiled society is itself a potentially harmful failure of the imagination.