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Benefits of using online peer support and opening up about Mental Health

Online peer support featured image with quote

“It’s all about tip sharing or giving each other ideas.”

“Talking to others with mental health problems will only bring you down.”

There’s no doubt that these are true for a few websites out there. Most online peer support sites, however, are great places to go if you just want to chat to like-minded people.

I first ventured into the world of online support back in 2008. This was probably about a year or two after I started self-harming. At the time I was around 15 and feeling lonely. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t alone. Years of bullying led to me feeling like an outsider. When the few friends I did have found out about my self-harm they practically disowned me. In their heads I was doing it all for attention. What they didn’t realise is that it was the complete opposite, I didn’t want any attention brought onto myself, let alone for my self-harm. Online I found other people who felt the same way I did. Through the interaction with these friends I found that I was finally able to even say the words ‘self-harm’ out loud to my therapist.

I initially just ventured onto forums. You could post here and forget about it until you were ready to read it. All of the responses would be relevant to the comments you’d made. It was also a place where people didn’t care if you didn’t post for ages or talk to everyone. Hiding behind my computer screen meant I would never have to face these people I was talking to, so I could admit whatever I wanted.

I moved away from the site for a few years and returned in 2014 whilst I was at university. I was seeking advice on things most would consider everyday or bizarre. Friendships, or strange thoughts that most people don’t have. It was a great place to find advice from people who were possibly going through similar things. These people came from all over the world. Those in Australia or America would be online and ready to help when posting late UK time.

Talking to strangers about stuff even your closest friends may not know might sound strange to some. However, it means that you only need to tell them the relevant bits of information, or what you want them to know. They don’t even have to know your real name. While this could pose issues as anyone could access it, it gives you that sense of anonymity that some people rely on when seeking support. Not everyone wants to admit that they are struggling. By hiding behind a computer screen they can get the support they need. At the end of the day, you know you won’t bump into these people on the streets of your hometown, or if you do you won’t know who the other is anyway.

My passion, and university studies, have led me to living abroad for periods of time. This has proven very taxing on my mental health despite it being what I love. The places I chose to travel had limited phone signal and internet. I had thought that I could handle these things. Having no access to my support network was more difficult than I could have imagined. I had no one that understood how I was feeling and what I was doing. Things that seemed ‘normal’ to those on online peer support were judged by those around me.

Thankfully, the most recent time I worked abroad was a little more civilised and I had internet access in my accommodation. This meant that when things started to spiral downward again, I was able to reach out to online support and be helped through things by people who understood. This was again beneficial in the two jobs I’ve had since. When things started to fall apart, or at least in my mind were, I was able to seek support from people who, by then, knew me and knew how I struggled.

I now help run a local mental health group which I initially found as another form of support for me, primarily to get advice accessing the local community mental health services. The founder asked me if I would mind helping after she was unfortunately let down by her co-founder. Now this didn’t only mean helping her run the group, but also that I might have to be a bit more open about my mental health to people. After all, people are more likely to trust you and be open with you if you are open with them.

I’d never had to write my story down before, or even tell it all to one person. Once you tell your story that first time though, it’s like a weight has been lifted. I have never been very good at accepting praise and compliments, so never really know what to do. However, I get this strange warm feeling in my chest whenever people start opening up or singing my praises in response to my sharing.

Unfortunately, I live in the catchment area for the worst performing mental health trust in the UK. I’m not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me, but simply to give you an idea of the battle I was facing. I was petrified to even ask to be referred after hearing all the horror stories. However, those in our TGL chatroom helped talk it over with me and there were people that had been through it who gave me advice. I’ve been receiving some help as I was referred in the end. I would probably still be sat at home arguing the pros and cons in my head without the support from the chatroom.

This comes in again when I started applying for disability benefits, as the system in the UK makes it difficult. I learnt that many of the people in chat had been through the same battle and for some of them it ended well. Talking to them about this gave me the courage to try, with their support.

Peer support can be invaluable to good mental health

The online peer support community becomes a kind of second family; you get to know each other really well so it makes it easy to help each other. New members are always welcomed too. We love having new people to talk to and help out. It also brings some new topics to discuss.

Here are a few helpful tips for using online peer support:

  • Even in the online world, you won’t get along with everyone (surprising huh?!) but that’s okay. As long as you remain civil, you should be able to co-exist.
  • However awful you are feeling, try not to take it out on others. Although it seems like you’re just talking to a computer/phone/tablet screen, there is a human on the other end and they have feelings.
  • There are time when you may feel yourself getting heated or you know you are irritable. Sometimes a step back and a breather is needed and this is okay (and strongly advised!) .
  • Similarly, if you’re going through a bad patch and you are no longer coping well with the environment, it’s okay to take a break for as long as you need. The community will still be there when you are feeling ready to be a part of it again!

These past few years have been a rollercoaster for me, but I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the help and support of my online peer support community.

If you liked this topic, you might enjoy Rug’s podcast on peer support here.

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