24/02/2015 07:03 GMT | Updated 19/04/2015 06:59 BST

A Friend in Need Could Be a Stranger

I discovered the Friends in Need community shortly before it launched. Watching the video Depression Alliance had put together to promote this online forum for those with depression, I was actually quite amazed that nothing like this had been done before.

I signed up out of curiosity and soon found myself posting regularly, finding it to be a wonderful way for me to share the many tools I've developed in my own recovery from depression and panic disorder.

As I read through the things people were posting I found many similarities with my own experience. There is a vacuum, it seems, between what happens in our heads and what we are able to share with those closest to us. There seems to be a misconception that people won't understand or that our mental illness will be seen as a burden to others.

Talking to a friend can be incredibly difficult and culturally certain subjects are simply not discussed. As a Canadian living in the UK for over five years I'm acutely aware of the cultural 'stiff-upper lip' held by so many British people. It does not mean they are prudish but rather, that emotions are 'messy' and not for public conversation; public conversations being any conversation much of the time.

Friends in Need may be on the internet and open to anyone but its roots are in the Depression Alliance, a UK charity aiming to provide community to those affected by what is the common cold of mental illness. Friends in Need has accomplished this admirably. Here is a place where individuals can post anonymously to an ever-growing community of 'experts by experience'. They can empty their heads of the negative thoughts that plague them and be met with empathy, support and understanding.

Personally I found the unwillingness to be open about mental illness was one of the greatest barriers to my recovery. I held a belief that people simply wouldn't understand or that there was something wrong with me for feeling how I did that lead me to keeping so much bottled up. I added guilt to it all and tried to be stoic because I felt, as a middle-class white woman, I didn't have a whole lot to be justifiably depressed about. I didn't understand the nature of the illness, nor the holistic approach needed to heal from it.

This suppression led me to a mental break-down and hospitalisation, after which I seriously assessed my lack of effective coping mechanism. One of the most positive outcomes of that mental breakdown was that my family became aware of just how much I was struggling. The lines of communication opened up and I learned how many of my friends and family experiences were similar to my own.

Friends in Need provides this same sense of community. It's a place where you don't have to explain how much effort it takes just to get out of bed in the morning. Members join and are instantly mirrored in their experience. It's not just depression that they're struggling with. Anxiety plays a part too, or perhaps they have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or they're dealing with chronic pain as well. But they quickly see they're not alone. And they also see that it does get better.

I can relate to the hopelessness whilst offering practical tools. I don't feel like I'm saying anything they haven't probably heard from health professionals or friends and family, but by virtue of my experience, what I have to offer is taken differently. I'm not up on some pedestal telling them to sort themselves out. I'm saying I've been there, I know that pain and difficulty and struggle, and I'm a happy, healthy, stable person today because I went through that, learned from it, and discovered that these things work.

You could argue that there's a lack of social connection through something as faceless as a forum where your avatar doesn't even have to be your likeness - but I argue that it provides a sense of safety. It provides a way for people to make a different connection, to feel that they can share their neurosis, unload the thoughts stacking in their heads, and do so without so much pressure to be any particular way. It provides a single point of connection through shared experience. And it's a way to be there for people - which is of benefit regardless of whether someone is going through a depressive period or is five years recovered from their last.

Find out more about Friends in Need