I work a lot with schools and parents looking at ways to improve young people's mental health and wellbeing. One of the issues that comes up time and time again is the toxic nature of the internet. The online world is seen as a dirty, dark maelstrom of doom. It is here where you will find communities to encourage your self-harm or eating disorders, you might get bullied by trolls, or have indecent pictures of yourself broadcast to the world. Being online 24/7 might leave you sleep deprived and your online relationships might open you up to sexual exploitation, radicalisation or identity theft. There are all manner of ills that can result from our online lives. But it's not all bad.
I often get the impression that some people would like to wind back the clock and uninvent the internet, but I would have to wholeheartedly disagree with this notion. The online world can offer a real lifeline, especially for those of us with mental health issues.
I'm currently struggling with my own mental health and I've found it can be hard to ask for help when you're in such a dark place that you can't possibly imagine why anyone would want to hear from you, let alone spend their time supporting you. Despite being inundated with offers of support, I find myself repeatedly unable to pick up the phone or send a text when I most need help. It feels like too much of an intrusion on people's lives. I feel they have better or more important things to do, no matter how many times they tell me otherwise. But the one place I can always ask for help is Twitter.
Twitter feels different because there is absolutely no obligation for people to respond. It feels far less of an imposition to send out a tweet then to send a message directly to someone's mobile phone or inbox. And every time I've needed help, Twitter has come up trumps. There have been several times when I've felt suicidal and alone, but virtual helping hands have reached out via the internet and guided me to safety. On one occasion, I knew that if only I could leave the house and walk in the park across the road, that I might be able to save myself from myself. I could leave behind the open pill bottle and try to reset. But I couldn't make it out of the house alone, and I couldn't bring myself to call anyone. I hadn't left the house in days and the outside world terrified me, but I just had to get outside.
I sent a tweet asking if anyone was around to virtually hold my hand as I left the house. I got dozens of messages of encouragement which eventually got me over the threshold. The support continued for the duration of my walk. As my mood slowly began to reset, the shaking passed and my breathing calmed, it was messages from people I had mostly never met which soothed me and saved me.
I have spoken to many other people who use Twitter and other social networks as a source of support too. I'm proud to say that I sometimes act as supporter as well as supported. The online world also has the benefit of helping you to feel less alone when everyone in your timezone is sleeping. At 3am when the demons creep in, your friends on another continent might just be on hand to help.
Things are going a lot better for me personally now - but I still have challenges to overcome and Twitter still helps me. In particular I have an issue around trains. I struggled especially earlier in the week, but in less than 140 characters I was able to summon much needed help:
One day I will not have to battle dangerous thoughts whilst waiting for trains. But today I could do with a well done for managing (please)— Dr Pooky Knightsmith (@PookyH) January 5, 2016
Intrusive thoughts of jumping under the train were crowded out by dozens of messages of support and I made it safely home, again.
So yes, the internet may be dangerous in some ways to some people, but it can be a life saver too.