The dangers of social media on mental health have been abound in the news lately, but recently I discovered them the hard way. Of course, I’d experienced the frustration and angst that goes along with some interactions over the internet, and I’d had some disparaging remarks thrown at me in the past, but never have I felt my mental health deteriorate so rapidly and from such an onslaught.
I like to consider myself a logical person, and I enjoy the exchange of a philosophical discussion. If you’re not familiar with Twitter and how it works, it is a mass conversation exchange where people can search keywords and join in on discussions with others. Unfortunately, as I quickly discovered, that is not always a good thing. Having conversations and debates with friends or like-minded individuals is a healthy and educational exercise that can be very fun and enlightening, but when it’s with strangers who don’t know you or anything about you it can quickly turn dark.
Often what I will do is search for keywords such as “Suicidal Thoughts,” which will bring up everyone on Twitter who has mentioned them, and I will comment encouraging remarks, in an attempt to remind them that they are not alone. For those of you who are familiar with my work, you know that I am a very active mental health awareness advocate, so I generally try to utilize social media in order to spread that message. On this day, however, I came across an interesting topic. I will not go into the details of the tweet, but it was regarding an interesting and common ethical debate that I’ve always enjoyed having. Debates not only allow us to share ideas, but they also give us the opportunity to see other perspectives. Unfortunately, as mentioned, this works best with people that you know and can relate to on some level.
As a public figure I’m very careful with how I word things, both in speech and in text, because I recognize that I hold influence over some people, so my response was not argumentative, or harmful, but rather a statement of objective fact. As I said before, this was a topic that is discussed within Ethics classes in the majority of colleges, so I thought nothing of it. Within moments I began receiving comments and messages from people who not only misunderstood my intent but were also taking it in the extremes. I was being taken for a bad person which, if you know me then you know is something I try very hard not to be. At first the comments were simply responses to a statement taken out of context, but they quickly grew hateful. People were telling me to harm myself, and assaulting me with personal attacks. Of course, I tried to defend myself, but that only added fuel to the fire, so I immediately deleted the comment and every response that I had made.
They say be careful what you put on the internet because you can’t take it back. I was learning this the hard way. The initial poster had taken a screen shot of my comment and posted it. Now, if you imagine how many people misunderstood the text before, we must bolster that ten-fold when the context of my comment was removed. Now, here it was, an innocent—albeit debatable—image of my statement posted with no framework in order for people to relate it to. People began sending me private messages on my Twitter, they began making disparaging comments on my YouTube channel, and leaving spiteful remarks on my other Twitter posts. Mind you, I’ve worked for years creating content regarding mental health awareness, so an example of this scenario is that someone searched for my YouTube channel and commented on one of my suicide awareness videos that I should harm myself. I was receiving dozens of these messages, and as much as I was trying to block people and contact Twitter support, I couldn’t stop it from slipping in.
I am in the mental health field not simply because I support those who deal with it, but because I myself deal with mental health issues. People kept telling me not to take this assault personally, but the fact was that it was my fault. The most important aspect of being a public figure is to know your audience; I didn’t have a clue. So as the minutes turned to hours, I couldn’t help but to take these remarks personally. As the dozens of comments turned to hundreds, I couldn’t help but to berate myself. Years of work as a mental health advocate potentially tarnished and destroyed all because I didn’t know my audience.
I am still receiving backlash from that incident, and as much as I’ve pleaded with people on Twitter to help remove the screen shot, people can be quite rude and unwilling to help over the internet. I don’t know how this will affect my career, but I do know how it has affected my mental health. And that’s the thing that many people don’t realize about the internet: How quickly things can spiral out of control. I remember sitting there, staring at my phone, as things just got worse and worse. People tell me that it will blow over, and I hope that’s true. Regardless, there’s nothing that I strive for more than to help people, so in the end this becomes a learning situation for those who have never experienced it.
It used to be that you could say or do something and eventually it would disappear into time, but not anymore. In today’s world everything is permanent, so every misunderstanding and every error in communication made over the internet is there to stay. I’d heard people say that countless times in the past, but given my career as a mental health awareness advocate, I never said or did anything that was inappropriate online, so I never gave it much thought. Now I do, and honestly, I am terrified for the children. Cyberbullying is a fixed part of our society now just as much as anything else, unfortunately, and a lot of that is due to situations similar to this. I’m not saying my situation is as clear-cut as that, but rather that we have an entire generation of children that are exposed to possibilities such as this. Misunderstandings that can backfire within moments. They say that, if things don’t change, by the year 2030 depression will be the leading cause of death. Clearly the state of our society is a contributing factor to this, and now I understand truly how much, how quickly, and how easily social media can be harmful to mental health.