Last week I asked you if you use social media for grieving, because I do – even though there is a school of thought that baring your soul before thousands of strangers doesn’t help, especially if you want to move on from hurt to genuine forgiveness. My story on this theme is coming up later in the week, so do watch out for that.
Since September 2017, I have been running a thread on Twitter to chronicle my journey through depression. My rants are rarely aimed at any oppressive figure in my life who caused me grief. But many of my tweets are about profound grief nonetheless. Two years on, this thread has become the gateway to a powerful world of mental health crusaders, many of whom I have never met in person, but who have nonetheless become my greatest teachers.
Deepa Singh Bais is a New Delhi-based social entrepreneur, artificial intelligence researcher, and depression survivor, and she has a similar story. “As a matter of fact, the first community mental health support I received was through Twitter. I joined Twitter in the throes of deep depression, trying to distract myself from the grimness around me. Some would say not a great decision. But it did help me & continues to do so,” she recently tweeted.
My Twitter #MentalHealth family was the biggest external push I needed to leave a settled job in business journalism and start writing about mental health full-time. In the past two years, I have been pulled into real action –events to build awareness of mental illness, seminars that aimed to influence corporate bigwigs to invest in the mental health of their employees, campaigns to change insensitive movie titles, pleas to journalists to amend stories that sensationalised suicide, writing a book – all via Twitter. There are scores of stories like mine.
In Nigeria, a country with a soaring burden of mental illness, Twitter therapists are even stepping in to fill the gaping void left behind by woefully inadequate healthcare services.
Now, I understand that this may not be your experience. For many, Twitter is a necessary evil – a platform crawling with the worst of humanity that is indispensable only because it offers real-time news (and gossip). It can be a stressful place with all the vitriol and name calling, all the bullying and sexism. Though both Donald Trump and the Dalai Lama are present on Twitter, it can at times appear far more suited to the former than the latter.
And yet, Twitter seems to be doing very well among people who are the most at risk of chronic stress and anxiety: those living with mental-health problems and their caregivers.
A study in the UK shows that mental health is the biggest subgroup within the #HealthTwitter community, and it is thriving. A staggering 87% of the mental health community say they use Twitter because here they do not feel alone in dealing with their situation. Nine out of 10 caregivers say they turn to Twitter to access advice or support from experts.
But here’s the data point from the study that most impressed me: 67% of the carers say their biggest motivation to be on Twitter is to show agreement with what others are saying (see infographic from the survey below).
A platform that has been called out for being weaponised by repressive regimes to crush dissent is used by some to actively demonstrate agreement? That’s … beautiful.
So I have been thinking, what can Twitter – the mothership that is often so badly lost in the vortex of outrage – learn from #MentalHealth Twitter?
I will leave you with one answer, which I found in an unlikely place: a TED talk by the American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In the talk, titled How Craving Attention Makes You Less Creative, Gordon-Levitt says life in the age of Twitter and Instagram is spent between two equally powerful impulses – getting attention and paying attention.
"Twitter came out, I got hooked to it ... I’d be sitting there, like, reading a script. And instead of thinking, ‘How can I personally identify with this character?’ Or ‘How is the audience going to relate to this story?’ I’m like, ‘What are people going to say about this movie on Twitter?’ And ‘What will I say back that will be good and snarky enough to get a lot of retweets, but not too harsh, because people love to get offended, and I don’t want to get canceled?’"
The solution for him, the actor says, is to see other creative people on Twitter not as “competitors” but as “collaborators”. Focusing on paying attention rather than getting attention.
The #MentalHealth community on Twitter has built itself up on exactly this principle of collaboration, of paying attention to everyone’s lessons on survival, and stringing them together to create an ever-growing collective field guide on survival. Anyone, irrespective of their politics or ideology, no matter if they are a Trump fan or a Dalai Lama devotee, can access this guide.
Of course, the community is not flawless. For example, you will rarely find older voices represented in it. But it is still a rare corner of calm and fellow feeling on the internet that offers real, life-changing value for the time you spend browsing on it.
Is it too late for the rest of Twitter to be like this? What do you think?
Until next time.