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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.