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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Depression and the social media trap

CC image courtesy of Penelope's Loom on Flickr
It is amazing the ripples that news of a celebrity suicide can trigger in social media circles. Since the first reports of Robin William's death started circulating earlier this week, half a dozen friends and colleagues "came out" on blogs or social networking sites about their own depression and accounts of suicide attempts.

Mary Hamilton, from the Guardian, who never made secret of the her battles with mental health, wrote an excellent post on her blog, later published in the Comment is Free section, condemning the way in which some newspapers reported suicide, with little consideration to the increased risk to the vulnerable and the depressed.

A Facebook friend publicly admitted she has been on "happy pills" for years since her divorce and still relies on them to function normally, despite her having found happiness again. A colleague revealed in a blog post that she tried to kill herself as a teenager and questioned why the event has always been shrouded in silence.

While I read in the Guardian that less than a third of people with mental health problems in the UK get treatment at all, a journalist friend was posting on Facebook horrendous details on the way in which her partner had taken his life under the care of the NHS. And how she too subsequently became suicidal.

Chain reaction
Each depressive that "came out" triggered a few more "me toos".

Had Facebook been in the midst of conducting their cheeky experiment on emotional contagion through social networks, to prove that a controlled feed of mostly sad posts would invite other sad posts, they'd have had a field day.

Sighs of relief were almost audible on Facebook, as everyone realised they were not the only ones battling inner demons, that there was no shame is publicly admitting they too suffered or had in the past suffered from mental health issues.

I don't believe this was a case of misery loving company, however; more an act of liberation: each confession giving permission for more to come to the fore.

Depression has long been a social taboo, a no-no topic of conversation, secretly worn like a scarlet letter of shame, as homosexuality once was.

People don't like talking about subjects that force them to confront their deepest fears. It is like tapping into that dark place in your soul you're well familiar with but are too frightened to admit. Silence is a form of self-denial, head in the sand.

Attention-seeking bitch
The other day, while having a rant online to a couple of friends about some work-related frustrations, I was called an "attention-seeking bitch". It was meant as a joke, a humorous way of telling me to stop being so negative. I laughed it off and didn't take it personally, but it later occurred to me that, had I been so low to the point of needing medical help, being labelled "attention-seeking" would have made me retreat even further into the dark recesses of my mind.

I stopped ranting after that and apologised for having caused stress to everyone who had been on the chat. Yet, inside, I felt sick that I had to say sorry for feelings I had no control over. Feeling bad for feeling bad. What the heck.

No one said, "Shall we go for a drink later so you can tell me how you feel?"

Every man for himself
Such is modern life. Everyone's too busy dealing with their personal crises, up to the brim with their problems. Very few people have the head space and time to truly listen. It is not so much that people don't care. Everyone is stressed, suffering from anxiety, insecurities, phobias, paranoias, having dilemmas about their relationships, their jobs, their finances. They are barely coping with their daily lives; they don't need your negativity and your problems to burden them even more.

I include myself in this category. When I've been working late for weeks on end, sleeping badly at night, suffering from exhaustion, generally burning the candle at both ends, I find I need as much solitude as possible outside working hours in order to recharge. I do not mean to be selfish or uncaring, but sometimes life becomes so overwhelming, I need to cut out all the noise from outside, and actively ignore people and their demands so I can listen to myself, attend to my own needs.

Communication overload
The internet and social media have made it almost too easy for people to connect and share. On a typical day I am bombarded with messages from friends on Gmail, Messenger, What's App, mobile SMS, Twitter, then I come home and find my mother, who doesn't own a computer or a mobile phone, has left several voice mails on my landline complaining I haven't called her in weeks.

Bloody. Too. Much.

Friends want to share stories, links to interesting articles they've read, update you on gossip, their love lives, the course they've signed up to, show you their latest holiday pictures, they want you to sign a petition for a cause they're supporting, or they just want to see you for lunch. If you're not out there frantically "liking" people's updates and photos, replying to emails within 24 hours, texting back within five minutes, you look unsociable and unfriendly, so you multi-multi-multitask your messaging back and forth.

But is anyone online really listening, or just talking fast over one another?

Maybe I'm getting old, but I often find this pace of communication far too intense and fragmented. Especially when I'm at breaking point, I need quality rather than quantity communication. What happened to the good old heart-to-hearts, those intimate conversations over a glass of wine that dragged into the wee hours? The eye-to-eye contact?

Happy people only
On Facebook there seems to be a tacit understanding that you should only share things that are positive, or funny, or critical of an issue but not on a personal level. Personal negatives are to be kept private so as not to spoil everyone's fun, although some would argue that seeing our friends 'happy' on Facebook can actually make us sad.

There's no room for sorrow, except communal sadness, like shared grief over the death of a celebrity. Facebook is a massive playground where everyone comes out to play, and anyone spoiling the fun will be blocked out of the game.

The rule is "don't be an attention-seeking bitch", although the irony is that everyone is doing just that – hoping for an audience, for "likes" and comments.

So where do depressed people go?

At a time when we socialise and share far more online than anywhere else, I wonder how much social media is responsible for making people feel ostracised and inadequate for not being "as happy as they should". If people can't come to the common playground to declare they're as depressed as hell, for fear of making themselves unpopular, the only alternative is to hide behind a curtain of silence.

There is also the question of how much to share.

Your boss, your colleagues past and present, your exes' family and friends, your ultra conservative friend of yore, your parents and siblings may all be on your Facebook network. Where do you draw the line on what you share? The flip side of sharing too much is not sharing at all. Or sharing only the innocuous, harmless and superficial stuff, which do not give away how you're feeling, even if you've just swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills because there was no one "real" to talk to.

Help, I need somebody...
Wanting to talk is not about soliciting attention; it is about having your negative feelings acknowledged and understood, feeling less alone in the darkness, seeking reprieve from the hell you keep getting sucked into. Yet many a cry for help falls into deaf ears.

A few days ago I saw a journalist on Twitter reacting to someone's tweet "Why is it a bad thing if people kill themselves? If living is total agony it's sadistic to maintain life," with the comment: "I assume you are trolling?" This, only a day after the journalist had tweeted the Samaritan's guidelines on reporting suicide. It was clear to me the person wasn't a troll at all; just a depressed person needing to vent.

What is the point of a journalist sticking to best practice codes on reporting suicide if they cannot even empathise with the suicidal?

I am not suggesting depressed people can be effectively stopped from harming themselves by being showered with sympathy on Facebook or Twitter; they'd probably be best helped by a trained mental health professional. But since so much communication already happens on social media, we need to remind ourselves that sometimes all people need is a little space and the right to say "I'm hurting and I need help," without being ridiculed in return.

The suicide of Robin Williams is particularly tragic because he was a man who made a living out of making people laugh. Just because someone is always cracking jokes, it doesn't mean they can see the funny side of their own life.

Is a clown really laughing or is his face a weeping one?

Please let us judge less, listen more. With open hearts.

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