Check your sanity privilege: writing online can be bad for your mental health

Mental health is a complicated thing, problems arise for complicated reasons, and the idea that it’s simply a question of being unable to cope with bad things is deeply unhelpful.

One morning, several years ago, I woke up with an allergy. On my way to the office I picked up some pills from a little shop on the seafront, near my flat. Several hours later I decided to head home again. For reasons I’ve never really been able to explain, I stopped at the Spar and bought some more pills.

At home I sat quietly in my room for a while, turning them over, reading the packets. I wasn’t upset, I wasn’t in the grip of some existential crisis, and although I’d suffered from depression for several years I didn’t feel in the grip of an episode. I felt no particular urges or impulses. In fact I felt nothing very much at all. To anyone watching I’d have seemed no different to normal; but some fundamental part of my brain, some vital restraint, had been switched off. The brakes had been cut.

I took the recommended dose. And then I took one more. I remember expecting to feel something, but I didn’t, so I took another. Still nothing, so I took another couple. Still nothing. Again. Nothing. I kept going. It wasn’t dramatic or emotional; it was as if I were outside of myself, an observer performing a science experiment on my own mind and body. How far could I push the Martin before I triggered some sort of response?

When it finally came, the response was sudden and brutal, like a hard reset of the soul. Realising what I’d done I tried to make myself vomit, but I couldn’t. Buckets of cold sweat poured off me, my heart racing, every inch of my body alight. Even then my instinct was to contain the problem: I didn’t want to go to hospital and deal with awkward questions, so instead I turned to Google and researched the problem, trying to establish how much danger I was in, and whether my current symptoms were from the overdose or a subsequent panic attack.

With the help of a friend I got through the night, and in the months and years that followed I got better. I never fully "cured" my depression, but I learned how to manage it and how to limit the impact it had on my friends. It would be easy to make up some bollocks about why I did what I did - comforting in fact, since I’d know how to stop it from happening again - but the frightening truth is I’ve absolutely no idea.

Five years ago I started writing; and if ever there were an activity designed to comprehensively fuck with your mental health, it’s writing on the internet. Gradually I’ve gained more success, writing for my own blog, then the Guardian, then New Statesman. There’s a lot of talk about writers with "platforms" having privilege, and that’s true to an extent, but few people talk about the downside – having a platform is also a major challenge to my sanity.

Being able to talk to 20,000 people at once sounds brilliant until you realise they can all talk back to you. Of course, only a tiny fraction of readers do, and those are typically either the loud or the inane, in no way representative of your ‘audience’. The praise and insults are routine and meaningless noise, while conversations become increasingly fraught. A reasonable point stated by one person can feel almost abusive when repeated ad infinitum by a circle of 100 people standing around you and pointing.  Then of course there are the very real cases of abuse and threatening behavior, something that all writers just seem to be expected to accept as "the price", as if simply having a platform makes you a legitimate target for abuse – fair game.

In the face of this bizarre feedback, a lot of writers and tweeters seem to end up with a profoundly distorted world-view, measuring their self-worth by hit counts and Facebook likes and meaningless prizes. It’s an incredibly easy trap to fall into; it took years for me to stop caring how many hits a post got, and since then I’ve been a lot happier as a writer. Meanwhile, I’ve watched people become obsessed with who has more Twitter followers, and become profoundly ugly as a result. 

When combined with mental health issues, this can become something altogether darker and more sinister. I’ve lost count of the number of debates on Twitter in which I’ve seen vulnerable people, egged on by their peers into aggressive online confrontations. At it’s most extreme, whole communities of people online seem to be wrapped up in their own fantasy words, the heroes of their own mass delusion. A couple of years ago I visited a forum for people suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but within hours, members were conducting a thorough investigation into my entire life – a bizarre group paranoia had taken hold, feeding on itself, rejecting any interference from the outside world.

When you become the target of this kind of behaviour it can be incredibly disconcerting. Since late 2010 I’ve been cyber-stalked by a series of people – or possibly the same person – who have become obsessed with me, creating endless parody accounts and meticulously Storifying hundreds of my online conversations. On the one hand, this is not brilliant for my sanity: I do talks around the country, and each time I wonder I’ll be confronted by an obsessive with a knife in his hand – in fact one stalker turned up to a panel I spoke at in 2011, lurking anonymously in the audience. On the other hand, it’s impossible to escape the fact that these people are seriously damaged themselves. As irritating as it can be, their obsession hurts them far for than it does me, and I can’t help but feel a little sad about that.

That said, nothing is more irritating than the idea that because I’ve suffered from depression, because I’ve taken an overdose, I’m somehow unable to cope with the real world. I may be mildly fucked in the head, but I’m not remotely fragile. I’m quite happy to be a dick to people who deserve it, and if you don’t like me being a dick then, well, it’s probably because you’re not as good at it as I am.

Mental health is a complicated thing, problems arise for complicated reasons, and the idea that it’s simply a question of being unable to cope with bad things is deeply unhelpful. One of the most irritating manifestations of this sort of unwanted concern is the idea of "triggers", a concept that seems to have little or no basis in solid research, but has been adopted across sections of the internet in an incredibly tedious and patronising way. I didn’t really give a crap about Hyundai’s exhaust fume ad, and like Unity  I suspect the reaction to it may have been overblown.

But then the reaction to most things on the internet is overblown. As bad as my mental health has been, I’ve always looked sane compared to Twitter.  I’m not sure what that means for our mental health in the long term, but it’s going to be interesting to find out. In the meantime, be a dick or don’t be a dick, but remember that not all forms of privilege are immediately obvious.

If any of the content of this story affects you, the Samaritans are available to talk 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Being able to talk to 20,000 people at once sounds brilliant until you realise they can all talk back to you. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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It's time the SNP's terrible record in government was exposed

Do not expect the SNP to apologise for these failings anytime soon. They do not really need to, so successful have they have been in creating a new paradigm in Scottish politics.

The only suspense in Scotland’s elections lies in who comes second. So complete is the Scottish National Party’s dominance that the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto is called ‘A Programme for Opposition’, summing up a campaign in which the Tories and Labour scrap for second while the SNP waltz to victory.

Nicola Sturgeon says it is a matter of when, not if, there is another referendum on Scottish independence; should the UK vote to leave the EU in June, the SNP is likely to push for another independence vote. But all the debates over constitutional questions miss a bigger point: Scotland already has one of the most powerful devolved administrations in the entire world. The SNP has ruled in Holyrood for nine years, and had a majority for the last five. Yet the SNP’s record, particularly for the most disadvantaged in society whom it claims to speak for, is dire.

Let’s begin with higher education. This, after all, is the area in which the SNP are proudest. Five years ago, Alex Salmond declared: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students.” He was so enamoured with the SNP’s policy of maintaining free tuition north of the River Tweed that he unveiled them on a commemorative stone at Heriot-Watt University on his last day as First Minister in 2014.

Scotland is by far the worst country in the UK to be a disadvantaged student. The richest Scottish students are 3.53 times more likely to enter university at age 18 via UCAS than the poorest ones, compared with 2.58 in Northern Ireland, 2.56 in Wales and 2.52 in England. Fewer than one in ten young people from the most disadvantaged areas begin to study towards a degree by the age of 20. And the problems are actually getting worse: just 8.4 per cent of entrants to Scotland’s elite universities came from the poorest communities in 2014/15, down from 8.8 per cent the previous year.

Rather than being beneficiaries of free university tuition, poor Scots have actually been victims of it. Protecting Scottish students from university tuition fees has resulted in a £20 million transfer from disadvantaged students to middle-class ones, according to the policy analyst Lucy Hunter Blackburn. Free tuition has been funded by cutting student grants. And, for all Sturgeon’s disingenuous rhetoric that she would not have been able to afford university with the tuition fees south of the border, protecting Scottish students from tuition fees has been funded by loading debts onto the poorest Scottish students. There is an iron law in Scottish universities: poorest kids graduate with the most debt. Students from households earning less than £34,000 typically graduate with between £4,000 to £5,000 more debt than those from families earning more.

The situation in primary and secondary schools is little better. The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy shows standards of reading, writing and numeracy for 13-14-year-olds all declining since 2011. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the biggest decrease in both writing and numeracy attainment aged 13-14 has been among disadvantaged students.

Educational inequality cripples Scotland from an early age. At the age of five, the vocabulary of the poorest quintile of students is 13 months behind the richest quintile in Scotland. Poor children aged five perform worse than those in England; the gap in cognitive development between children from less well-off backgrounds and others is also bigger in Scotland. Disadvantaged children are the real victims of the SNP’s failure to make good on its pledge, in 2007, to reduce average class sizes in primary schools to 18; they are now 23.3. And this, in turn, can be traced back to the political choice to prioritise spending on free tuition fees over other areas that would help disadvantaged children far more. Between 2010 and 2013, school spending in Scotland fell by five per cent in real terms from 2010 to 2013 while, in England, it rose by three per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2015. Perhaps that explains why, after Easter, 17 schools in Edinburgh  remained closed because of safety concerns, leaving pupils to be taught in other schools and temporary classrooms instead.

The SNP is not only failing Scots in schools and universities. The number of working age adults living in absolute poverty (after housing costs) rose by 80,000 between 2010/11 and 2013/14; the number of children living in absolute poverty also rose by 30,000, and the number of pensioners by 20,000. Pockets of crippling intergenerational deprivation remain too frequent in Scotland: life expectancy in Glasgow is a year lower than in any other part of the UK. Indeed, life expectancy across Scotland is almost two years younger than the rest of the UK, even though Scotland has the highest health expenditure per head of any UK country.

It is a microcosm of wider problems with NHS Scotland. The SNP’s targets for waiting times for hospital admission have been repeatedly missed, including its “guarantee” of a 12-week maximum wait for planned treatment for inpatients. Patients are more likely to have to wait over 31 days for cancer treatment in Scotland than England, and the percentage waiting so long in Scotland has been rising since 2014. There are also grave health inequalities: those in most deprived areas are 2.4 times more likely to have a heart attack than those in the most affluent areas.

Yet perhaps the most shameful part of Scotland’s health record lies in mental health. Patients are 8 per cent more likely to have to wait over 18 weeks for psychological therapy based treatment than in England. Since July 2014, NHS Scotland has also repeatedly missed its targets on children’s mental health.

Do not expect the SNP to apologise for these failings anytime soon. And they do not really need to, so successful have they have been in creating a new paradigm in Scottish politics, in which the independence debate is the only game in town. But none of this should obscure the truth that the SNP have been in government, and with huge power, for nine years. They have floundered - and underprivileged Scots have been the biggest victims of all.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.