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Column: The power of the internet can help mental health

The internet provides a platform to promote positive mental health at an unprecedented scale while reaching out to those who need support through tough times, writes Derek Chambers.

Derek Chambers

HAPPY WORLD MENTAL Health Day. This annual day is 21 years old, so it’s a good time to have a positive conversation about our mental health and how we communicate around it. It’s also a good time to celebrate the internet. The internet provides a platform to promote positive mental health at an unprecedented scale while reaching out to those who need support through tough times.

Having a positive conversation about our mental health and celebrating the internet both seem like reasonable propositions. Our mental health is fundamental and basic to the experience of being human, it’s an integral and vital part of all of us, while the internet facilitates instant access to information, opinions and communication with other people all around the world.

Sadly though, such conversations are challenged by the dominant paradigm in mental health and the often negative traditional media coverage of the internet. Too often, mental health equates to mental illness in the public consciousness. Meanwhile, newspaper headlines mournfully pronounce that the “internet is bad for kids’ mental health”. It’s time to get positive about mental health and it’s time to cop on to the fact that the internet is here to stay, embrace it, understand it, help to make it a nicer place.

Stigma and fear-mongering

Let’s start with mental health. Many public conversations about our mental health focus on stigma. But, if we are talking about stigma then our subject matter is mental illness – or emotional difficulties – not mental health. This distinction between mental health and mental illness is important. If we want to reach as many people as possible and change attitudes we need to use engaging messages. The starting point should be conversations involving all of us.

The language of traditional stigma reduction campaigns often focus on illness and discrimination which can be too easy to ignore as we go about our busy, sometimes self-centred, lives. The trick, when it comes to changing attitudes, is to convince as many of the population as possible that mental health is personal to them. Our mental health is sometimes good, it’s sometimes bad, but it’s always a part of all of us. This approach does not deny the value and richness of personal stories about difficult times but it does seek to change the starting point in public discourse around mental health so that, ultimately, more and more of us will want to hear those personal stories.

To promote positive public health messages the internet provides a powerful platform. At the same time, however, the internet itself is sometimes depicted as a new threat to our mental health, especially among young people. Print media has come under pressure from online media sources and it is understandable that newspapers regularly print features that reinforce collective anxiety among their traditional adult market about internet safety. But suggestions, for example, that online communication is replacing face to face contact and damaging young people’s ability to develop empathy don’t stand up.

Research from the US-based Pew Research Centre quoted in The Guardian last week reports that online socialising doesn’t replace face to face connection but actually augments it. Furthermore, the trend in relation to social networking is towards decreasing use as young people become older and more independent.

New power dynamic

The internet-anxiety felt among older adults, especially parents, can be further understood in the context of the unusual power dynamic online where knowledge and understanding is greater among young people. In almost every area of public life, adults assume the role of adviser, caretaker and teacher of young people based on the knowledge that life experience brings. However, the online environment represents a space where the balance of knowledge and understanding leans firmly towards younger people who have grown up with technology literally in their pockets.

How do we get past this generational disconnect? The need to bridge this gap is vital in its own right but in relation to mental health our focus is sharpened. When over 8,000 young people (aged 17 to 25) were asked in the My World Survey where they would go for mental health information and support, 77% said they would go online (UCD and Headstrong, 2012). Furthermore, in a recent survey of parents, 22% had gone online in the previous month looking for mental health information (NUIG and Inspire, 2013).

The internet is the first port of call for mental health information and support so we need to positively promote online resources and platforms that are working hard to meet a growing need. Through the internet, we have the potential to market mental health as a fundamental part of being human so that when any of us are going through a tough time we feel comfortable and confident about reaching out for support. This is what we strive to do every day at ReachOut.com.

There are many things that each and every one of us can do to promote mental health through online platforms. Take the advice of online community manager Darragh Doyle and brighten up someone’s day by paying them a compliment online. To help you do that, our colleagues in Australia have created an application called “Appreciate a mate” which allows you to send nicely designed, tailored compliments to your friends. Think of it as cybercuddling. Go on, send someone you care about a positive message online to celebrate World Mental Health Day – it’s about all of us.

Derek Chambers is the Director of Programmes and Policy for ReachOut.com an initiative of Inspire – follow on Twitter at @derekchambers11 or @ReachOutIRL.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can also contact the following organisations:

  • ReachOut.com
  • Samaritans 1850 60 90 90 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634
  • Console 1800 201 890
  • Aware 1890 303 302
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie

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