A closet cyber nerd since my pre-teen days, I started a blog on a whim during my sophomore year at the notoriously racist, sexist Dartmouth College. I used it to flesh out thoughts that consumed me about blackness in the US, campus racism, feminism(s), and mental health. I discovered words I didn’t know I’d needed to describe my experiences, thanks in large part to conversations I had with other people existing at the margins of our respective worlds. Tumblr kept me company on the nights I stayed up well past 5 am. My insomnia was born of anxiety; some days I was physically and psychologically incapable of leaving my room in the morning to face the interminable whiteness either of New Hampshire weather or of Dartmouth classrooms.
The internet had become a coping mechanism for me. It was better than what my “real world” could offer. Exhibit A: When I tried reaching out to campus health resources about my inertia, they scheduled an appointment with the only counselor available within four weeks. When the appointment finally did roll around, I found myself sitting across from a blonde-haired, blue-eyed man – one who forced me to make the case that yes, systematic racism does exist. Remember, he was supposed to be helping me.
The conversation made me feel crazy in a way my depression itself never had. He made me list detail after detail of finding racist graffiti in dorms, being called a “nigger bitch” to my face, having my hair (and the rest of my body) routinely prodded without consent, and so much more. I left the appointment feeling physically sick when I realized only the boldest of offenses even gave him pause. The rest were, as he put it, “perhaps difficult to navigate” but not evidence of a campus culture that refused to address its attitude toward bodies not included at its inception.
It is at best exhausting and at worst dehumanising to have to explain to a mental health professional why discrimination could have a negative effect on your mental health. I felt like I was once again defending my right to exist at a college to which I had been accepted. So I posted about it on Tumblr, disappeared into a vortex of 90s television jokes, and called it a night. I didn’t feel perfect, but I felt better.
And I am not alone. Much has been written about the internet (and more specifically, social media) as a space critical to supporting activist networks, attracting media attention to issues often ignored by old media, and reframing narratives about marginalised groups. But in the spaces I frequented as a depressed college student, the internet had a basic emotional function, too. There the people I talked to felt allowed to express the things that burn slowly in the back of their throats, unshared and unquenched, during face-to-face conversation. It is at once both public and deeply private, facilitating both an openness and vulnerability which elide other forums.
“Being able to share experiences and receive support online has the benefit of making people feel less alienated and more connected, which is what often leads to and/or exacerbates depression,” Dr Welansa Asrat, an adult psychiatrist in private practice in New York, told me via email. “Online forums may be most critical for those who have no access to mental healthcare and/or have a disability such as agoraphobia that prevents them from going out to get care.”
So the intersection of my identity with my mental health isn’t just a theory, either. After all, access to mental healthcare is, like access to all healthcare, stratified along socioeconomic lines.
This is not just a problem for people of colour, either. The recent death of Leelah Alcorn by suicide held echoes of the alienation many marginalized people grapple with constantly. LGBT people, whose barriers to access include a lack of adequately informed professionals, know this feeling all too well. It is one of the many reasons they, like countless other groups who face discrimination, often tease out mental health concerns in digital spaces rather than with formal treatment.
Online spaces do not have quite the same “safe space” quality as physical support groups. Abuse of marginalized people can – and does – often creep through the same portal that offers us comfort, too. Not everyone’s experience online is cathartic and unfettered. LGBT people, especially trans folks, are targeted at disproportionate rates simply for speaking about their experiences. Women (especially women of color) face staggering rates of online abuse. And unregulated forums present a whole host of new triggers for potentially harmful thoughts and behavior, without the benefits of training and accountability from providers. So I don’t mean to suggest that going online is a catch-all solution.
But I do know that it helped me at a time when the institution charged with helping me simply wouldn’t. In times when there’s no quick fix in sight, sometimes you just need to know you and your dark thoughts are not alone.
This article originally appeared The guardian, 14 January 2015.