Mental Health Support, Communities, and Reddit

I’ve never really been a Reddit user; I don’t have an account, but I occasionally read some stuff there. In the past 2 weeks I’ve spent some time lurking at Reddit’s Radiohead sub. I’m a fan of Radiohead, and wanted to hear what other people were saying about the new album, and so on. Reddit is made up of sub-forums based on specific interests and topics, and the most popular/commented on/controversial posts may also get posted on the main page. Reddit often gets criticised for allowing specific subs to exist, particularly around hate groups, discriminatory views, or general unpleasantness (I’m not linking to any, if you’re interested, I’m sure you can find them), and generally Redditors have something of a bad-rep online.

All of this meant I was pleasantly surprised by r/Radiohead. In amongst the general fandom, the HYPE TRAIN, and speculation about when the album would come out, what songs would be on it and so on, was a really supportive community. Every so often would be a post where someone would allude to difficulties in their life, mental health needs, or occasionally, suicide, and the responses were all really supportive; expressing concern and understanding. One post in particular has stuck in my mind, where the poster suggested that they “wouldn’t make it” to the album release, and were essentially saying goodbye to the other fans in the sub. The responses were heartening to see, people offering to talk, suggesting support options, and asking the poster to not hurt themselves. This made me think about the value of online shared interest groups as support networks, and how this often gets overlooked.

Online mental health support resources are becoming more commonplace, with Mind’s Elefriends being a good example. But one of the issues that resources like this have to overcome is the stigma attached to accessing mental health support. Pretty much all of the resources I’ve come across had “mental health support” or variations of the phrase in big letters, which is useful in allowing people to find it, but may also put others off. So shared interest communities, like r/Radiohead, may seem like a safer place for individuals to open up and admit their struggles; as it’s not a mental health resource, and it can be anonymous, there’s no risk to individuals of being sectioned, or their friends/family in “real life” judging them.

In my work I have often come across people who view being online, and particularly talking to others online, as a “risk”. As someone who has pretty consistently used the internet since I was 13, this seems very strange to me. Yes, some people do use the internet for nefarious purposes, but more often than not, you will find people like those in r/Radiohead, who will respond to a distressed and potentially suicidal internet stranger with “I understand how you’re feeling, but please don’t do that. From one fan to another, I want you to stay here”, and I find that heartening. We need to view online shared interest communities in the way that we would “real world” shared interest communities. These are still social networks that individuals choose to spend time with and build connections with. Given all the evidence for support networks and communities as a benefit to individuals mental health, recognising the value that online communities can bring is important, and might be an effective way of allowing people to access support.

We’re more likely to be influenced by our peers than others groups, and often “peers” has meant people from similar social backgrounds that we have commonalities with. There is an argument that this could be changing due to the prevalence of online communities. The people I went to school with would generally be considered as my “peers”, but I didn’t have very much in common at all with a large number of them, and chose my friends based on shared interests. The internet allows us to find those shared interest groups much more easily, and somewhat negates the similar social background aspect of the definition of “peers”. The internet allows individuals from all over the world to create communities that aren’t impacted by class/race/age etc. and so can change who your peers may be.

I can see value in these shared communities as sources of support, and whilst the advice these individuals can offer may not go beyond giving out the number to the Samaritans, having a peer group that can act as a safe space may help individuals at risk of harm to access more formalised support.

About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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