This week the Guardian published an article #timetotalk: Is social media helping people talk about mental health? to coincide with Time to Talk Day run by the Time to Change campaign. #timetotalk asked us all to spend five minutes talking about mental health so we can break down stigma and increase understanding. Time to Change have really embraced social tools to spread their message, as in this short film promoting #timetotalk
I was struck by the question posed by the Guardian, as it gets to the heart of one of the themes I have been considering in my PhD research over the last few years. It also caused me to reflect that back in 2011 when I began my research, I would never have imagined such a headline would make it into the mainstream media. It is a reminder of how embedded online social networking has become in our day-to-day lives (at least for many of us) and evidence of the particular affordances of social media for people talking about difficult issues such as mental health.
My online ethnographic research has primarily focused on a now defunct blog and the ecoystem of blogs that surrounded it. It’s another reminder of the fluid and impermanent nature of online social networks. During my fieldwork the conversation moved inexorably from the slower paced and asynchronous world of blogs (or madosphere as some called it at the time) towards the faster paced world of Twitter and real-time chats. What was once a space and set of practices that felt subversive and risky to many of its participants, is now increasingly bubble wrapped in professional guidance, policies and ‘how to’ toolkits.
My research insights in relation to the question ‘is social media helping people talk about mental health?’ are similar to those shared by Guardian interviewees – there are risks and challenges but they are also massive possibilities for people to connect, share and take productive risks that they may feel less able to face-to-face. As well as enabling people with mental health difficulties connect, online social networks also enable mental health professionals to deepen their empathy and build alliances with people accessing services. This is none more evident that in the regular #WeMHNs Twitter chat which is co-run by people living with mental health difficulties and working in the field – a flattening of roles and co-production of knowledge.
It is salutary to realise that research which felt at the cutting edge of emergent practices, can so quickly become an historical reflection of a point in time, quickly overtaken by people such as the vloggers who share their experiences in the Guardian article. But whilst the platforms and the practices may change, the essential human desire we have to connect, share our story and to be understood is a constant.