‘As human beings, we have the dichotomous psychological need to be our own individual, yet we also want to feel that we belong to and are accepted by a much larger social set. People are willing to keep open running diaries as a way to stay connected because their ultimate need is to feel accepted.’
Last year, I started Imeus, a site for people with mood disorders, like depression and bipolar. At the time, there were no British sites that were polished enough or social enough for people with mental health conditions, which were run by people with mental health issues. We chatted, we blogged, we debated and we shared things. Most of the time we kept a check on one another and engaged in small talk, having a lot of fun. But there were moments when we told one another about what happens to people like us. We understood and got to know one another better, leading to greater revelations about ourselves and, therefore, stronger ties. We were a healthy community and we felt healthier in having that community.
What I learned from Imeus was that a social site could make a difference in people’s lives both socially and psychologically and that pretty much anyone could do it – the tools, the simplicity of them and their inexpensiveness meant that such a venture was accessible to many, but relatively few knew about it. But the rewards were many: people could come together and, by placing more of their lives online, there was a more open and communicative community with an atmosphere that was different to that on other sites that were still rooted in web1.0. What’s more, Imeus was our site, our community, and we behaved as such.
I’ve been involved with the mental health community for over a decade and I’ve both experienced and witnessed how myself and other people with mental health conditions are discriminated against, how many are neglected, with little chance of being heard or having their ideas implemented into policy which, of course, has implications for initiatives like the Government’s ‘Big Society’. It’s often the case that well-meaning people start initiatives, but the power and access to the debates are beyond the majority of mental health clients. There is therefore rarely meaningful action and inequalities remain largely unaffected.
People with mental health conditions are often at the lower strata of British society, often coming from economically deprived backgrounds, often with diminished life chances, with consequences for their confidence and inclination to do something, so they’re often left unheard and, if their experiences are given expression, this is granted by others who structure and filter these accounts with their own values, influenced by their own experiences.
I’m convinced social media could help change that, but there are few signs in the Birmingham blogging scene that it is right now. Of the prominent blogs that there are, there is a lack of a conversation between people who have conditions. Birmingham City University’s mental health blog, The Mental Health Nursing and Learning Difficulties Lecturer’s Tea Party, for example, is a blog written by lecturers that covers the issues, but it is not user-based or user-led, meaning that, again, the people who need to be heard, aren’t. North Birmingham Community Arts, a user-led blog, has been running since 2006. Admirable though it is, it only has a total of 16 posts, only one of which has been commented upon. Twice.
There are other blogs, the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust UserWatch, for example, but these sites seem to be run by the same people. Again, this hardly empowers the majority of clients.
So there aren’t many people who are openly blogging about mental health in Birmingham. Why? I think it is primarily down to a lack of self-confidence among many mental health clients, fear of prejudice in revealing a mental health condition and the digital divide. This does not bode well for any ‘Big Society’, since the mentally ill are likely to be sidelined by yet another initiative. In mental health, we’ve seen it all before and have perhaps become defeatist in the process.
Phatic communication, I believe, is a blessing in disguise. It is said that we need to focus more on more substantial topics, like civics, which is true, but we still need small talk because it is social and it’s more of a starting point than an end in itself, leading to the possibility of more substantial relationships. Talking about the weather today means that, tomorrow, you may have built relationships which can be the springboard for tackling topics that are of more heartfelt concern. Getting together with others can then lead to other things, increasing the chance of productive action and effective changes in mental health policy.
Again, the starting point for this is the sociability of phatic communication, the channel for which could quite easily be social media. However, people with mental health conditions often feel excluded from such processes. What people fail to see – or if they see it, are too apprehensive to do anything about it – is that social media can be a way of combating this ignorance by allowing people to become better informed and to have a personal interest in the lives of many other people. There are conversations taking place, but they’re usually closed off from the wider public, on sites like Facebook. The lack of open blogging activity in Birmingham in the area of mental health isn’t, therefore, the full picture. Microbloggers’ talk is not merely about people’s last night out, as it sometimes appears, but there are moments when people discuss deeper things that are personal to them, off the radar of Google and Technorati, be that through messages, phones, face-to-face conversations and so on.
But to get to that stage, we need to get to know one another. This is a strength of phatic communication – that it leads to greater things. We are, in the end, more likely to want to know people we like and are less likely to discriminate against someone we understand than someone we have little idea about. There’s quite a lot happening in Birmingham’s blogging scene around the subject of social media. The sad thing is that this does not involve people who, perhaps, need a voice the most. That said, social media proponents are trying to increase participation with people from diverse backgrounds, empowering them in the process. Let’s hope they succeed and that people who currently fear the wider community help bring about one that they need fear no longer.