Depression is a multimedia event

October 31, 2011 in General

If you had to pick someone out of a lineup as a person who counsels against the use of social media as an outreach for depression, Chris Brogan would be among your least likely choices.

He’s a New York Times bestselling author, journalist and social media/marketing guru who works with Fortune 500 companies like Pepsi, General Motors and Microsoft. Lest you think he’s a cold-hearted corporate man, he also runs an organisation called Human Business Works which helps charities and non-profit organisations develop resources.

I’d never heard of him until coming across a Youtube clip he’d made which was trending in the new “What’s Hot” section on Google Plus called “Depression Is An Offline Event”.

Here’s what he’s got to say:

YouTube Preview Image

The surprising crux of his argument is that he considers people reaching out for help through social media when they’re having a tough time to be a “misuse” of the online world, and he’s reached this conclusion from personal experience.

“I’ve been very depressed and I’ve come to the online world thinking that maybe it would soothe me. I have come to Twitter or Facebook or my blog and saying, if someone would be really nice to me then maybe that’d help me through the next little while. I have to tell you that it doesn’t work.”

Well, this blog and its associated Facebook group must be a mirage then, along with the Nutters Club group, and another private peer support group for gay men that I’ve recently become part of online. There are people experiencing serious mental illness right now, like the author of My Crazy Bipolar Life, who use Twitter and blogging to stay in touch with the real world when they’re being shuffled in and out of psych wards – truly inspiring stuff.

In all of these situations, I have seen men and women reach out for help and talk about issues they may never have done so otherwise.

Sadly, Brogan’s advice doesn’t just turn on his own anecdotal bad experiences online. He follows it up with counterintuitive logic. While admitting that he normally counsels people to treat the offline and the online worlds as similar, depression is the exception to this rule:

“If you feel like you’ve got nowhere to turn, if you feel like you’re spiralling, online is not the place that’s going to save you. You can’t expect it. You can’t expect all your friends to pick you up. You can’t expect to be seen when you’re feeling invisible.”

How is this different to the offline world?

The very events that have driven people to depression are likely to have left them feeling isolated and cut off. They haven’t found help in the offline world, otherwise they wouldn’t be attempting to find it online.

If you can’t “expect” your friends to help you, whether they’re on the net, on the phone, or right in front of you, then you need to get better friends.

“We all have a lot of ‘friends’ in the online world and it’s not ok to seek help online. It’s just going to lead to some rough times. There’s been a wave of people crying out via the online world and getting smashed.”

This is an interesting window into Brogan’s philosophy about online relationships. He seems to be saying that it’s ok for business, but for anything personal that runs deeper than conversations about the weather, you shouldn’t confuse the people you meet in the online world for people who actually give a damn.

But the people who make up your online world are the same people that live in the offline world. They’re not androids, although it has been argued that the internet can create a distancing effect that makes some people less empathetic to the needs and feelings of others.

However, this is like blaming a car for killing a child when it’s the drunk driver behind the wheel that’s responsible.

The prejudice against mental illness and lack of awareness in how to respond to someone when they’re in distress exists everywhere. If people aren’t able to spot it in the online world, then they’re very likely to be just as ignorant offline.

Someone who’s prone to sharing racist jokes on their Facebook profile is incredibly unlikely to be culturally aware or sensitive in their real life.

Our behaviour online is actually a fascinating window into the way our minds work. Brogan’s inverted commas around the word ‘friends’ in the social media context could indicate that he’s become cynical through his own bad experiences, or he could be alluding to a few horrific, documented instances where people have been suicidal and been encouraged by people on the internet to go through with it.

These disgusting incidents were news precisely because they were rare, and the vast majority of people were outraged by them.

The false logic that can follow is that social media is the cause of the problem, rather than the immoral actions of people.

Brogan’s message is very well-intentioned, but even if I agreed with his dismissal of online outreach, I certainly couldn’t agree with his solution for dealing with your depression once you switch the computer off:

“Take care of yourself, and I mean yourself. Don’t expect the social web to help, don’t expect people in your house to help, find the help you need and get back online, get back to who you’re meant to be.”

Contradictions abound within this. Of course you have to love yourself enough to reach out for help, but the statement above seems to be a few steps short of suggesting that depressed people should harden up. He’s a strong advocate of seeking medical advice, and oddly, even suggests speaking to a priest before speaking to someone in your own family.

As one of the commenters on the Youtube video put it:

“Many religious pple don’t even believe there’s such a thing as depression; to them it’s not having “Jesus” in your life. There CAN be good online, but you have to be wise about it. Similarly, the Diabetic Online Community has SAVED my life quite a few times.”

Unfortunately, the remainder of the commenters agreed with Brogan’s position.

If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that you shouldn’t stay isolated if you’re on a downward spiral. Reach out for help, wherever you may find it.

The internet and social media provides an avenue for people to reach out to strangers for help in a way that never existed before. You can be that little voice calling out in the darkness, and get a response.

If the reaction is bad, then that’s merely an indication of how much more work is yet to be done around raising awareness. As always, keep on going till you find someone who will listen to you. That person may well be halfway round the world.

Depression is a multimedia event

One Comment

    1. Craig says:

      Sometimes, though, automated systems can work, in addition to antidepressant medication. I’ve been able to clarify a lot of things in my life through use of automated CBT responses.

      Just been discussing a fundamentalist suicide case with a mate of Ant Venn-Browns, too. Religious conservatives are crap at providing adequate counselling and psychotherapeutic services.

Depression is a multimedia event

0 Trackbacks