On top of that comes the notorious stigma attached to Mental Health – professionals are worried about the effect it may have on their clients, service users worry about the effect it may have on their lives and there are those with no experience of it who don’t know how to deal with it and may very well unknowingly contribute to the stigma attached. NHS Change Day has tried to build some momentum towards an awareness of how we act as professionals towards the people in our care – whether it is an administrator who never smiles or a doctor who doesn’t learn your name. It recognises that a small change can make a big impact. Likewise Time to Change is a national programme that emphasises the power of sharing a cup of tea, checking in from time to time or just simply going for a walk with someone.
Until social media came along our worlds were very small. Some of us were able to head off on exciting trips to different places but our experiences differed greatly – some may have skimmed the surface whilst some may have embraced local culture fully. Some had friends different to us but stigma meant that a lot of the time we weren’t even aware.
Now our worlds are huge and most people are ‘friends’, ‘follow’ or are ‘linked’ with people who are very different to themselves. Maybe you like to play online video games and head off on adventures with a group representing every continent, composed of multiple gender identities, different religions… And they’re all there in the fray when you need them.
I recognise the problems of course. Internet, whilst seemingly ubiquitous, is not accessible to everyone. Perhaps, like me, you grew up in an extremely rural environment and your first experience of internet that didn’t take 20 minutes to load a page was at university. Maybe you couldn’t afford the sometimes ridiculous prices (I’m looking at you America) or the devices on which to run it. Some parts of the world still aren’t connected, whether because of government, culture, cost, infrastructure, isolation, you name it.
A lot has changed since the first iPhone was released in 2007. Smartphones provide a relatively cheap device on which to access the internet and apps provide direct access to a multitude of functions – weather, maps, emails, browsing… All the information we could possible want at our fingertips. Rural areas, whilst not having fibre broadband or particularly good phonelines, are able to utilise mobile networks for internet access as well as phone calls.
Let’s look at the UK for now. 80% of people access the internet regularly – there is still not much access among the elderly but tellingly that is increasing year on year (suggesting that the digital world has become more and more accessible). And of those 80% a massive 70% are looking at stuff to do with their health. Why?
- Personal: we can look for whatever we want to look for, specific to us
- Shared Experiences: personal stories and forums let us share in the actual experiences of people
- Anonymous: sometimes we’re embarrassed and online we don’t have to reveal who we are
- Interest: maybe we just want to find out more
- Instant: the information is there when we need it most i.e. when it occurs to us and before we forget!
- Always Available: we lead busy lives and sometimes we need access when it suits us best
- Diverse: language, culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, lifestyle, life choices, personality, needs – all of these are catered for online
- Anonymity: I might think that I can reveal all but end up being ‘found out’ in a negative way. Others can be mean towards me because they can hide behind a username.
- Pretending: online I can pretend to be anyone. I can act more confident and as a result people might think I need taking down a peg.
- Cyberchondria: by having access to all this information I can start thinking something is wrong with me when it actually isn’t.
- Trust: the information online isn’t necessarily the best information from a trusted source. I might start to believe something that leads to negative consequences within my life.
- Too Much: there is too much choice, too much to see and even worse, sometimes I see too much!
Ok, now it sounds awful. But the internet is a wonderful place and it does open up so many things to people who might never have been able to access them before. Surely we need to trust people with this tool in their lives? And the fact that it apparently allows people to bypass the stigma associated with accessing mental health services means that it is an important development in the quest to have a country full of mentally healthy and resilient people.
This started off as a blog post about diversity in mental health and I think perhaps I went a little off topic. What I have tried to emphasise is the adaptability of the internet, how it can mould around you and protect you in a cocoon of safety. Don’t get me wrong, it can also do the exact opposite but as we develop these digital tools for mental health we start to create safer environments for people to interact, safer environments for people to learn, to share and ultimately to find a place where they can be themselves. Google, Facebook and Twitter are all trying to learn the best way to become a non-discriminatory service but unfortunately they are faced with a problem many can relate to – in a world where everyone has a voice and differences should be respected, who ultimately decides what is right or wrong?