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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder