Mental Health Forums - The Good and Bad
Finding a mental health forum on the internet is not a difficult task. Put 'mental health forum' in a Google search and you will find a fair few. It’s then just a case of choosing one and signing up to become a member. Many people become members of several such forums all at the same time such is their desperate need for answers and support. From asking all those questions you forgot to ask your psychiatrist or doctor to general support or friendship, these forums provide a service that is often lacking in the community.
I want to look at how these forums may help or hinder us with our mental health problems. I have participated on a couple of mental health forums and worked on one also and so I base my findings on these experiences.
Most forums are divided into relevant topic or illness type sections and the anxiety sufferers group is usually the biggest as anxiety is a part of everyday life. It may also be said that most if not all mental health disorders have an element of anxiety and depression problems attached to them. Many new members take some time initially to read lots of posts of interest; some delve straight into posting regardless whilst a small minority never seem to post. So, what are these sufferers getting from these forums?
Are you a member of a forum online?
What type of mental illness is the forum for?
A Place for Questions: Those with a new diagnosis will often have a feeling of confusion about their diagnosis. They may even be in denial. There is still a great deal of ignorance about mental illness and just because a person has been given a tag doesn’t mean they will have been told everything about that tag.
A forum can be a place to address those grey areas, put questions to those who have been similarly diagnosed. Someone who is still getting used to the idea of having a mental illness will gain some comfort and relief at finding others who suffer with the same illness or on the same medications. When it is felt there is no one else to ask or that the question might sound silly, a forum is often perceived as a friendly, helpful and safe platform to pursue the answer.
Because of the nature of the illness, stigma and isolation, a sufferer can lose their friends or feel unable to confide in those close to them. In some families there is still, dare I say, a sense of embarrassment about having a family member with a mental illness though this is blatantly made worse by ignorance. It is not unusual for members to share messenger addresses and even phone numbers and I am sure some will become friends for life.
Identity and Understanding: Some people who have suffered from longstanding mental illness and/or have had to endure many psychiatric hospital admissions have often come to live in a psychiatric bubble. By that, I mean their mental illness, whether through medical or personal interpretation, has become their identity and way of life. They may begin to identify more with other sufferers than they do with those people who do not have a mental illness. These forums can afford them more contact with people who they feel will understand them, who they can identify with.
For some the sympathy and empathy shown by fellow sufferers may be all that is needed especially if they feel misunderstood by not only close family and friends but by the world at large. Forums can provide a platform to say it is ok to be mentally ill.
Averting a crisis: Depression is common amongst mental health sufferers and even if they are not clinically depressed they may be having a day when it all seems too much. Many people use these forums to offload their worries and fears on those tormented days. They may feel so bad that they even feel suicidal. Who should they tell if they tell anyone at all?
A forum can be a place where a person can air just how desperate they feel with the knowledge that their true identity is not known. It feels safe to spill. However alarming their posts may seem to others, there is always someone who will offer advice or to talk privately. It may be the case that to share these awful feelings is enough to diffuse some of its urgency. To share with another when you are at a low point in your life can be crucial. We have no way of knowing how many lives might have been saved by the use of mental health forums.
Promoting Isolation: It can be said that whilst forums provide a positive arena for help and support, those who feel isolated can be further isolated from the real world by them! I have seen many members who are signed into these forums all day and evening. It might be considered that spending so much time on a forum could appear to satisfy a sufferer’s need for friends or close contacts. The conclusion must be however, isn’t some contact better than no contact?
The Wrong Answers: The primary reason most forum members join up is to seek advice. The question might be simple or complicated. The problem with asking questions is that though one will inevitably get an array of answers, some of these can be in disagreement. This can turn out to be more confusing to the questioner, and becoming more confused when you have a mental illness is not a good thing. I have actually seen the confusion developing before my eyes.
Questions seek opinions as much as answers, and these will be mostly based on a person's experience, so what may be the right answer for one person may be the wrong answer for another. It should also be noted that you could actually be giving advice to a minor! People can actually be anyone they want on the internet, and most of the forums I have seen have no criteria to ascertain how old a member actually is.
Bad Advice: Mental health forums are no substitute for professional advice when a person is in crisis or feels severely mentally impaired. Take medications for example. What works for one may not work for another. I am always taken aback when I see members giving advice about how much of a drug to take or suggesting someone stops their medication. If the person doesn’t know better or hasn’t asked a professional this can be a dangerous thing to do. Similarly, on the subject of being in a crisis and possibly suicidal, a forum can be an unsafe substitute for professional advice.
The written word is open to personal interpretation and often a poster may have revealed only part of the story - the part they want you to know. With only half the picture, it is folly and even impossible to give honest, good advice however much you feel you understand. Not all advice is good advice but a person who feels confused and in crisis is often desperate enough to take any.