The other day, I was really upset about something a friend said that I found insulting and judgemental. I’m not going to say what they actually said because I’m not looking for an apology or a confrontation or to make them look bad. But they essentially implied an aspect of my lifestyle (which for me, personally, is a choice due to anxiety) made me a nobody, undesirable or less-than. I knew they were just reflecting a shallow belief, but afterward, I started to doubt myself – was there actually something wrong with me and my friend was right? I posed the question in a mental health Facebook group where I am a member. Within seconds, people started chiming in with their responses. Every single person could identify with me. I got over 80 comments from people with anxiety who feel and act the same way. This helped me realize that my lifestyle is perfectly normal. I felt much less alone.
The outpouring of solidarity and love definitely made me feel supported and understood. Of course, I regularly receive validation and emotional help from my family, partner, and close friends. Some who have their own mental health concerns. However, there is something comforting about connecting with strangers and finding out that your problems exist outside of your own circle. This positive experience online made me reflect on how this particular Facebook group, as well as others, have helped me in regards to many aspects of my life, but especially with mental illness. And this got me thinking about why I feel so much better about my interactions in this group than the experience of attending an in-person support group. Please let me acknowledge that I am aware this is my own personal opinion and that in-person support groups probably work for many people.
With a Facebook group, you can control the give and take and you can control how much you participate and how often. I have decided that I prefer online groups for many reasons. I can turn off notifications or put it away when I don’t want to see it. And I can get involved in conversations at my own pace versus being stuck in a room for 1-2 hours and obligated to listen to various people who I may or may not relate to. I have experienced severe anxiety during in-person support groups because I cannot really take a break in a way that suits my needs that is also respectful towards the other members. Of course, I can walk out of the room. However, it can be disruptive because the movement and noise can be a distraction to the group. I worry (perhaps irrationally, but perhaps legitimately) that the person will feel bad because they will think I don’t believe what they are saying is important. Personally, I also have an anxious behaviour where I need to know the time, quite frequently, as well as check my phone to see if there is something urgent. But in all the groups I’ve been to, checking your cell phone has rightfully been a huge no-no. Imagine everyone was on their phones while you were baring your soul? It would be so discouraging.
Another issue that I have with in-person groups is that you cannot control the content of the conversation in any way. Many of the people in the room might have such vastly different experiences, even with the same mental illness or disorder. They also might be much older or younger. There will be a variety of lifestyles, incomes, ethnicities, and genders. There is an opportunity to find common ground among people who are different than you and hearing their stories can definitely be a learning opportunity. However, it can also be isolating. Depending on who is speaking and what they are saying, you can feel jealous when it seems that they are better-off or you can feel guilty when you feel as if your problems aren’t as significant.
While a lot of the content in the mental health Facebook group I participate also comes from people with vastly different experiences, I have the choice to filter what I read and don’t ready. A lot of people put content warnings on their posts, so I can quickly decide whether this post may be helpful. Don’t get me wrong – as a mental health advocate, I am interested in many illnesses besides my own bipolar disorder. I am not only in this group to get support and give support to people similar to me ─ I also am there to learn. However, if I don’t have the energy, I can choose not to read. Most of the time, I don’t even post. I don’t think it is necessarily beneficial for me to share painful experiences with people all the time, but it can be really helpful at specific times when I can interact with people who know what I am going through. And in such a large group like this one with over 5,000 members, there is bound to be people who get it.
Seeking advice outside of my immediate circle is also helpful because I can take the load off them and not worry about being a burden. A support group, in an online or physical form, is an opportunity to make connections and help cope with your symptoms. An online group can be engaged with at any time of day, from the comfort of your own home. I often step away from my phone feeling empowered by the conversations online. I can also discover resources I didn’t know about. It’s also a place where I can more easily express myself. I love to write and I like to take the time to figure out how best to share my feelings. When I speak, I get nervous and flustered. I don’t have to worry here about making eye contact or seeing the reactions on people’s faces. When I post online, I might expect disagreement, judgment or even hate. However, I can react privately and then figure out the best course of action. I feel like this article might be interpreted as me saying I like online conversations better than in person. That is not the case. It’s just that sometimes when discussing highly personal perspectives, it can be helpful to be able to control the environment in which it is shared. I feel very vulnerable when I talk about my mental illness. By having a more easily controlled environment like a Facebook group, I feel safer. An unhelpful or ignorant reaction to personal feelings can be traumatizing. It can lead to people clamming up or avoiding seeking help.
I speak about Facebook groups because this is the tool I use. However, there are also other options for online support. You can post anonymously on a message board (some people don’t like having their name linked to their mental illness, no matter how private the Facebook group). There are email listserves or blogs (like this one!) where you can interact with people who want to talk about mental illness.
Have you ever gone to a physical support group or used an online group to chat about mental health issues? What has your experience been like? Comment below!