Online support groups could be making your mental illness worse

On Feb. 15, Elizabeth Anne Brown, writing for The Atlantic, claimed that “Suicide Memes Might Actually Be Therapeutic.” She paints a glowing image of online mental illness communities, seeing them as a refuge for the mentally ill to speak their truth, unfiltered and unashamed.

I want to believe you, Brown. I really don’t want to be the keyboard warrior here. But as a once religious attendant of online mental illness communities, I know that suggestions like this aren’t not just generalizations – they can be outright misleading for people at risk of harming themselves.

Self-selecting internet forums are inevitably prone to becoming echo chambers. And while Brown touches upon it herself in her interviews, I need to reiterate that communities of entirely mentally ill users could end up reinforcing, rather than challenging, depressive and suicidal thoughts.

There may be supportive comments, here and there, and communities like this do give a voice to the taboo. But the act of commiseration, apart from what Brown suggests, is not the same as the act of healing. This isn’t a generational misunderstanding of online communities, as she argues. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how these communities impact many of its users.

At least twice a day, scrolling through depression-oriented communities on Reddit, someone posts that they’re planning to go through with plans of suicide. The descriptions are often painstaking, too, going into excruciating details about what pills they’re planning on taking, how they’ll tie the rope, what they’ll tell their parents before they go. The user comments largely encourage them to call a hotline, or possibly message them for support, but there’s only so many times you can read online suicide notes in rapid succession before they start to feel strangely normal.

It’s irresponsible to treat unhealthy communities such as these as an afterthought. Perhaps Brown’s focus was more on image-based posts – but messages like these are only a click away, and, more often than not, frequented by the same users.

In the throes of depression and social anxiety, it was hard for me to accept that, while comfortable in my illness, many of my coping mechanisms weren’t actually helping me. Blasting Lana Del Rey and Sufjan Stevens only further numbed me. Quarantining myself to my room, replaying my monologue of self-hatred over and over again, just perpetuated my insecurities.

And I came to realize that my many long rants on various support groups, once genuinely looking for help, gradually morphed into an excuse to stew in my own misery. As my sense of self withered, the users, though well-intentioned, would often parrot the same destructive thought patterns. I wanted people to agree with me, and I got that in scores – but what I really needed was for someone to sit down with me and tell me I was wrong, that I was being too cruel to myself, that it wasn’t normal to read about fatal car accidents with a twisted sense of jealousy.

I always got several links to mental health hotlines, a few brief messages of kindness copied-and-pasted from other threads. But as a depressed person, I had an inherent cognitive bias towards negativity. I’d always latch on to comments that reaffirmed my dismal worldview. It’s naive, then, to assume that this wouldn’t be a common reaction – that pessimistic responses, no matter how scattered, wouldn’t have serious impacts on the people reading them.

I’m well aware that a column in your school newspaper isn’t going to cure you of your mental illness. But neither, then, is a faceless profile who doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your struggles, and doesn’t know how to help themselves, let alone someone potentially thousands of miles away. If they help you, by all means, continue frequenting these communities. If you’ve found success, it’s not my place to discourage you. But if it’s just reinforcing the thought patterns you’re trying to get rid of, you owe it to yourself to honestly reflect.

I’m not going to run through the “therapy, exercise, support group” laundry list everyone with depression has heard verbatim. But I will say this – if mental illnesses are formed by unhealthy thoughts, treating yourself means constantly challenging and reevaluating them. And it’s almost impossible to change your thoughts when almost everyone around you thinks the same.

Take care of yourself. Take a serious look at the ways you cope, and if they’re really helping you develop as a person. You deserve to be understood, at your current state, but just as well, you deserve the opportunity to grow, to move on from the past.

And, as painful as it is to admit, if people are tethering you to your pain, it may be time to move on without them.

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