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.

Photo: Getty
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Labour will soon be forced to make clear its stance on Brexit

The Great Repeal Bill will force the party to make a choice on who has the final say on a deal withg Europe.

A Party Manifesto has many functions. But rarely is it called upon to paper over the cracks between a party and its supporters. But Labour’s was – between its Eurosceptic leadership and its pro-EU support base. Bad news for those who prefer their political parties to face at any given moment in only one direction. But a forthcoming parliamentary vote will force the party to make its position clear.

The piece of legislation that makes us members of the EU is the European Communities Act 1972. “Very soon” – says the House of Commons Library – we will see a Repeal Bill that will, according to the Queen’s Speech, “repeal the European Communities Act.” It will be repealed, says the White Paper for the Repeal Bill, “on the day we leave the EU.”

It will contain a clause stating that the bit of the bill that repeals the European Communities Act will come into force on a date of the Prime Minister's choosing. But MPs will have to choose whether to vote for that clause. And this is where Labour’s dilemma comes into play.

In her Lancaster House speech Theresa May said:

“I can confirm today that the Government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”

Later that day David Davis clarified May’s position, saying, of a vote against the final deal:

“The referendum last year set in motion a circumstance where the UK is going to leave the European Union, and it won’t change that.” 

So. The choice the Tories will give to Parliament is between accepting whatever deal is negotiated or leaving without a deal. Not a meaningful choice at all given that (as even Hammond now accepts): “No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain.”

But what about Labour’s position? Labour’s Manifesto says:

“Labour recognises that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain and that it would do damage to our economy and trade. We will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option.”

So, it has taken that option off the table. But it also says:

“A Labour approach to Brexit also means legislating to guarantee that Parliament has a truly meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal (my emphasis).”

Most Brexit commentators would read that phrase – a meaningful vote – as drawing an implicit contrast with the meaningless vote offered by Theresa May at Lancaster House. They read it, in other words, as a vote between accepting the final deal or remaining in the EU.

But even were they wrong, the consequence of Labour taking “no deal” off the table is that there are only two options: leaving on the terms of the deal or remaining. Labour’s Manifesto explicitly guarantees that choice to Parliament. And guarantees it at a time when the final deal is known.

But here’s the thing. If Parliament chooses to allow Theresa May to repeal the European Communities Act when she wants, Parliament is depriving itself of a choice when the result of the deal is known. It is depriving itself of the vote Labour’s Manifesto promises. And not only that - by handing over to the Prime Minister the decision whether to repeal the European Communities Act, Parliament is voluntarily depriving itself of the power to supervise the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May will be able to repeat the Act whatever the outcome of those negotiations. She won’t be accountable to Parliament for the result of her negotiations – and so Parliament will have deprived itself of the ability to control them. A weakened Prime Minister, without a mandate, will have taken back control. But our elected Parliament will not.

If Labour wants to make good on its manifesto promise, if Labour wants to control the shape of Brexit, it must vote against that provision of the Repeal Bill.

That doesn’t put Labour in the position of ignoring the referendum vote. There will be ample time, from October next year when the final deal is known, for Labour to look at the Final Deal and have a meaningful vote on it.

But if Labour supports the Repeal Bill it will be breaching a clear manifesto promise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues. 

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