Mental Health Beyond the Internet

By MJ Gauthier
Social Connectedness Fellow

Today, an alarming portion of the world’s population struggles with mental health challenges. Services are overstretched, needs are unmet, and despair overwhelms. The lack of professional support in many areas is a Gordian knot.

Unsurprisingly, in this era of instantaneous global communication, a multitude of people suffering from mental illness turn to the Internet for help. Online, one can access information on mental health and find indirect professional support on websites, such as Big White Wall and My Therapist.

But the Internet is also a place where people who cope with mental illness can find one another and relate, be it on websites meant for this specific purpose (such as It Gets Brighter and Connect For Mental Health), or on social media. To understand the effects of such use of social media, I listened to the experiences of three 20-year-old students.

On Facebook, the world’s largest social networking platform, with now an outstanding 2 billion users, multiple groups were created to provide people experiencing mental health challenges with a safe space to connect. Members of these groups can talk, exchange thoughts, commiserate, bond and laugh finally at very frustrating things. They can do so as part of a community that understands what living with mental illness is like in a world very much built for people who do not face the same adversity.

But as helpful as these spaces can be, the students I interviewed also noted they can have a “worsening effect”. When one spends too long online, granting attention to negative social interaction, positive interaction can be overshadowed. Further, it can profoundly discourage wider acknowledgement of mental health issues. “Seeing that these things happen to so many other people … it is terribly disheartening, as nice as it may be to know you’re not alone.”

Worse, one of the students shared that, as a result of her quest to evade the outside world as much as possible, these online homogenous communities became “her whole world” — to the point where her progress in improving her mental health had stagnated. But with time, she understood that online relatability would never compare to real-life solidarity. “I got more from the four hour workshop on Intimacy After Trauma organized by Queer McGill last March than from years of navigating Tumblr.” The same student explained that “some corners of Tumblr have become a competition as to who’s been more oppressed or has had it worse. There are groups of people that hyperfocus on every distressing cognizance and actually dwell in quicksand.”

It appears then that seeking social connectedness and comfort from relatability online is effective, but limited and not risk-free; a provisory step towards improvement. Which is exactly what the founders of Vent Over Tea, two former McGill students, figured.

Vent Over Tea is a service that provides people with the opportunity to connect with a trained listener online before subsequently meeting in person. Its premise is that a person in need of a willing human shoulder to rely on should not be left in social isolation. Unfortunately, this occurs all too frequently when the only sources of help are very saturated on-campus, or other affordable, mental health services that sensibly give precedence to people in danger of self-harm.

Services like Vent Over Tea can make a positive impact on an individual’s mental health, though it is important to note that they are not meant to be a substitute for professional help. But by encouraging real-life interactions, they have the potential to overcome the Internet’s principal limitations and help build meaningful connectedness.