February 23, 2009

There have been some reports in the press this past week surrounding Social Networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and whether they could have a negative effect on our mental health.Writing in the Biologist, the journal of the Institute of Biology, Dr Aric Sigman said "a lack of face-to-face contact could upset users' immune responses, hormone levels, artery function and mental performance."

This really got me thinking about how Social Networking has impacted on me and upon my mental health. I really only became involved in Social Networking because I was unwell, because I was feeling isolated and unable to go about my usual daily activities. My first 'taste' of virtual communication came from joining Mental Health Forums, reading what were helpful posts and then starting my own threads for discussion. I found that there was a wealth of information available to me at a time when I may have felt disinclined to involve myself in face-to-face groups and discussions. I needed the security of the anonymous environment offered by these forums. I truly believe that at a time when I was unable to talk openly about how I was feeling these online worlds gave me an outlet which was more than useful, it became a vital part of my Recovery, for a time.

Facebook was an altogether different media. At first I treated it as a place to contact old pals and family and enjoyed being able to keep up with their exploits. I could upload photos, and enjoy theirs and it was fun and exciting for a time, but then I grew bored and wondered what was the point of it all? I always felt that it could be so much more, and it could become the biggest 'forum' for whatever message was important to one as an individual. Subsequently my Facebook has become my 'Mental Health Soapbox'. I have noticed over the months that people have opened up about their experiences of Mental Health, there have been numerous interesting discussions around some of the news links I have posted, and spreading the 'Time to Change' message has been such a powerful, positive and pleasurable experience. People are talking, they are communicating and they are making contacts which are enriching their lives. I have made connections with some of the most inspirational and interesting individuals imaginable, people I would never have come across in my regular 'world'. I enjoy and respect these 'virtual friendships'.
Depression, anxiety and the symptoms which accompany these illnesses can mean that people feel completely disconnected from the world. Social Networking can provide a safe place to express oneself, but with the facility to draw away whenever one wants to. That's a real plus. The possibility of connecting with people from all over the world and to find they encountering similar difficulties as you are is something which normalises our situation, and relieves some of the fear and isolation we feel when we are unwell.

Of course there is a downside. It could be easy to immerse oneself in a virtual world. It could lead to further isolation if one begins to rely upon their 'internet' buddies more than the people around them, rather than allowing friends and family to enrich the relationships they already have. I can see that in the young it could create a generation who lack genuine social skills and have developed online personalities which may not be compatible with the person they really are. BUT, and there is a 'but'...we have 'choice' which should mean that the majority of us use Social Networking when we need it, for the reasons we want to and because we enjoy it. AND if we are parents, we have a responsibility to ensure there is a balance in the activities our children's experience.

The Jury is out on Dr Sigman's opinions for me at this time, and I suppose as we watch the 'Twittering' universe expand and Facebook membership soar to new heights it will be years before we can genuinely realise the true impact it has had on us.

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.