When people talk about mental illness, they are sometimes referring to their own histories of depression, anxiety, and other disorders. They are sometimes referring to the histories of mental illness that run in their families. They are sometimes referring to celebs who have lost their lives to suicide, or discussing the connection (or lack thereof) between untreated illness and the rising rates of gun violence in the United States.
What is clear, however, is that none of these individual conversations reflect the totality of the one in five adults in the U.S. who live with a mental illness. Rarely are the conversations happening publicly in an effort to support those affected by disorders. Experts say that public dialogue is critical in the effort to building community and ending stigma—and it is happening today on Twitter, under #WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness.
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness is the brainchild of writer Amanda Stafford. A self-described “prolific tagger,” she often takes to social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr to talk about mental illness and the stigmas surrounding it. In August, she started a conversation on Twitter using #TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs, and she hopes to continue the discussion that hashtag began with #WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness.
“I made this tag not to change the world, or for accolades, but to maybe help one person get one day of their life back,” Stafford told the Daily Dot in an email. “If this tag can prevent someone from looking back on today in 10 years, the way I look back on the last 10 years of my life, then I’ll be content.”
Stafford lives with bipolar and borderline personality disorders and struggled with her illnesses and alcoholism for years. She explained to the Daily Dot that she finally took control of her health when she became sober last year. Her doctor wrote her a prescription for Prozac, and within two months, she began to notice significant improvements in her quality of life. Among her #WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness tweets today included a photograph from a journal entry she wrote once she began to feel the effects of her medication.
“I am feeling much better,” she wrote. “I realize now that this is prob not a placebo effect…I finally enjoy time with the family.”
The effects of mental illness are deeply personal to Stafford; in addition to her own struggles, she lost her father to suicide when she was 9-years-old. She has devoted some of her tweets today to remembering him and his battle with mental illness.
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness I think of my dad, and wish I could ask him about it. I wonder if he would get me.— Manda Posthumously🦾🥦🏳️🌈 (@ShutUpAmanda) December 17, 2015
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness— Manda Posthumously🦾🥦🏳️🌈 (@ShutUpAmanda) December 17, 2015
I wonder if treatment could have saved my dad the way it saves me.
Stafford told the Daily Dot that starting conversations on social media and through her writing have helped her cope with the challenges of mental illness and celebrate her victories in recovery. “I find writing about my experience is cathartic,” she said. “It can get a little intense, but it helps remind me how far I’ve come.”
Part of Stafford’s desire to engage in these conversations is to connect with and inspire others who may be suffering in isolation. She has found that “there are more tags about ‘man buns’ than mental health” on Twitter. Given the severity of the mental health crisis in the United States, that’s something that needs to change. “I wanna talk about it. I think we all do,” Stafford continued. “[Looking at the #WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness tweets] I find myself marveling at how many of us are frustrated about the same things, and how little we talk about it.”
In less than a day, #WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness has already brought a wide range of perspectives and ideas to the mental health discussion. Some people are tweeting about loved ones:
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness I remember more than a few friends who are no longer here, and I miss them.— Steven P. McLaughlin (@stevenp69) December 17, 2015
Others are celebrating their victories and remembering their struggles:
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness I think of all of the fake smiles I've worn— Mr. J (@pluto_marz) December 17, 2015
Others still are drawing attention to the disparities that exist in treatment and care:
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness I think of all the people who have died before they could get help. Cutting mental health funding helps no one.— Nic Summerhill⁷ (@NicSummerhill) December 17, 2015
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness I think about how limited the resources are for the poor and those who often need them most— I'm Just Dan (@DanielAshley13) December 17, 2015
Even Nev Schulman from Catfish weighed in:
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness I remember that it's not something you can see, so be kind to everyone cause you never know what they're feeling.— Nev Schulman (@NevSchulman) December 17, 2015
Perhaps most significant is the support that #WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness is receiving from leading voices in mental health advocacy.
For those who might be concerned that “hashtag activism” isn’t a valuable strategy in addressing the mental health crisis, the unyielding support of organizations in the field may change their minds.
“I think that the risk is greater when you don’t talk about things,” explained Katrina Gay, the National Director of Communications for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in an interview with the Daily Dot. “Particularly when it comes to mental illness, people feel really isolated and alone. To have a hashtag that people can participate in can be helpful, because it give people encouragement and hope and removes some of the barriers of isolation.” Gay added that NAMI frequently engages with people with mental illnesses on social media by using hashtags such as #IAmStigmaFree.
Erin Wallace, the Vice President of Communications and Marketing for Mental Health America agrees with Gay. “While hashtags come and go, what is constant is the need for individuals to feel comfortable sharing their stories,” she said. “MHA welcomes dialogues on any social media platform that can do that.” Added Pamela Greenberg, the President and CEO of the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness, “If this hashtag can help just one person talk openly about their mental illness then it’s more than worthwhile.”
Greenberg’s words echo Stafford’s, whose intentions for #WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness are articulated perfectly in her own tweets.
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness I hope this message reaches out and shakes the doubt out of someone, and convinces them to seek help.— Manda Posthumously🦾🥦🏳️🌈 (@ShutUpAmanda) December 17, 2015
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness I hope this tag reaches anyone who needs it.— Manda Posthumously🦾🥦🏳️🌈 (@ShutUpAmanda) December 17, 2015
#WhenIThinkOfMentalIllness may not be around forever—such is the nature of hashtags—but its potential impact on the lives and wellbeing of its participants may be life-changing.
Image via dierk schaefer/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)