I was invited by Katie Bacon of Online Youth Outreach to write a blog about my experiences of using social media and the online world as part of Youth Work Online’s Month Of Action. At first this seemed like a daunting prospect, after all the online world is very much a part of my life and the distinction between online and offline is often blurred for me, with many of my friends residing in both and a lot of my work being based online. For me the online world is as big, complex and “real” as the real world in many ways and so it was hard for me to pick just one element of this to comment on.
I have used the online world to not only learn about mental health and illness (after all knowledge is power) but also as a therapeutic tool in itself. I have written extensively online but never blogged about the use of the internet itself. I feel that this shows just what a large part of my life it is and something i most likely take for granted. Occasionally I wonder that question that many of my generation have asked; “What did people do before the internet?”. However I do remember what it was like before the boom of the internet as something that everyday people used, in the days of painfully slow dial-up which I first remember using at about the age of 8. I do have a certain amount of nostalgia for those days, before Facebook, Twitter and the internet’s overwhelming presence in just about all aspects of our lives.
However i do feel that the internet came along for me at a crucial time. I first started using it on a regular basis, probably at about the age of 13, coincidentally when a lot of my mental health problems really began to kick off and become a real problem. Looking back it has had an absolutely invaluable impact on my life and emotional wellbeing and provided me with a safe, for the most part anonymous space to explore and try to understand the things that were going on in my head. These were huge things, pervasive and destructive things that I couldn’t seem to physically voice but could type and share with strangers who I didn’t feel would judge me or change in their attitude to me if i disclosed some of the darker things inside going on inside.
I know i’m not alone in this. Every day tens of thousands, in fact millions of people turn on their computers and log onto to countless blogs, support groups and forums to discuss their mental health and seek support. But why? Personally I believe that talking online to someone can be just as therapeutic as talking to someone face to face and in fact can be a lot easier and less traumatic. The online world provides a certain amount of anonymity that is just not possible in the real, tactile world. People can be whoever they choose to be online and the media is often very quick to pick up on the most negative and extreme examples of this but in my experience a lot of people use this in a positive way and i feel it is unfair to judge the majority of people who choose to remain anonymous against a minority of people who use it for less honourable purposes.
We must also take into account that a lot of people feel unable to reveal their identities. A lot of them simply cannot take the risk and this is often true for those with mental health problems. People fear that loved ones, friends and co-workers will uncover their mental health problems and this is often not an option because of stigma and discrimination which are still very real issues for a lot of people like me. The same can be said for meeting people from the online world. Obviously caution and common sense are necessary and you should do as much as you possibly can to stay safe and I would in no way recommend giving out personal details to people you meet online but I would say that many of my best friends are people I originally met online on support groups. In fact some of the people I met in the early days of using support groups, some seven, almost eight years ago are to this day firm friends and people who I cannot imagine not being a part of my life.
It was these people and others like them that first suggested and encouraged that I get help for the mental health problems I was struggling with. If I hadn’t had them coaxing me and sharing their own experiences of getting help (I quite frankly wouldn’t have known where to start) I don’t think I would have been able to speak to my parents and say I needed help in the first place and would have continued to keep everything bottled up and shrouded in shame and secrecy.
The internet is also a wonderful place for finding resources. There is a wealth of information out there that is literally right at your fingertips and does not require you leaving the house or even getting out of your pyjamas (a serious issue when you have depression, agoraphobia or other issues). It is also available 24/7 and both the wealth of information and support groups can be an essential lifeline during times of crisis, especially crises which occur out of office hours which is the only time that most mental health services can provide support. If you are stuck on a waiting list for services this can also essential as a stop gap measure and research is continually showing the benefit of online CBT and Mindfulness courses that often aren’t readily available for people who are struggling.
Personally I do not know what I would have done without the resources and the people I have met during my online journey. I know the internet is not perfect but it’s young, we are all learning as we go along and it is alright to make mistakes. And overall I think the internet serves an undeniably useful service. And as a last point I would like to mention a website that I am very involved in both as a contributor and editor, the YoungMinds VIK site which aims to open up discussion around young people’s mental health and is very close to my heart: Young Minds VIK: http://www.vik.org.uk
Katie Bacon would like to thank Kat for her courage, honesty and open attitude to share her personal online journey and experiences. Kat will be hopefully joining the Online Youth Outreach team to co-deliver on the social media training courses over the upcoming months. Also like to thank Kari Brooks for generously sharing her stunning art work for this blog. Kari is an art student in America. Her art collection recently came 2nd place in Rolling Stone magazine. to check out more of her images – http://www.flickr.com/photos/era_halloway
First published 1st April 2011: