Sharing feelings of depression on-line, Web loggers make connections to help them through dark days
Back in 2004, Terra Atrill started blogging on MySpace. Never one to hold back on her opinions, she liked the fact that she could be her candid self on-line. But there was more to her Web log than fleeting thoughts. With a history of depression, Atrill’s posts were an efficient, easy way for her to track her moods.
After she became pregnant in 2005, Atrill became a mommy blogger. She was hooked on sharing her views with countless readers on-line.
“There is a huge community,” Atrill says of the blogging scene in a phone interview. “It is quite amazing to put something out there then get a few or 20 comments from people providing support or saying ,”˜Thank you for saying this.’ ”
A single mom of a three-year-old girl, Atrill remains active in the social-networking world and regularly updates her blog, Mommy Is Moody. But she’s also experienced her share of Web-based hell.
Having been diagnosed with anorexia by age 12 and attempted suicide in her mid-teens—then prescribed antidepressants at 19—Atrill says she was a prime candidate for postpartum depression. Sure enough, giving birth brought on some dark days.
“The second day after she was born, I didn’t want anything to do with her,” Atrill says. Yet she was also consumed with anxiety over something terrible happening to her baby and was fiercely protective of her.
“She had really severe colic,” Atrill adds. “One day she cried for 10 hours. But I had to do everything myself; I was quite overbearing about being in control. I had to breast-feed; I had to do everything perfectly.”
She admits she felt a lot of anger, frustration, and resentment during the newborn stage. During what little downtime she had, she wrote about those sentiments—or, as she puts it on her blog, “let it bleed on the page”.
But those no-holds-barred entries came back to haunt her. A woman she used to be friends with shared the posts with the Ministry of Social Services, who came to check up on her.
By the end of their late-night two-hour visit, though, Atrill says the government workers told her they had no reason to be concerned about her parenting skills.
Despite that experience, Atrill maintains that blogging has been an enormously positive part of motherhood, particularly in terms of how it helped her—and others—deal with postpartum depression.
“Mommy blogging has helped remove the stigma of mental illness,” Atrill explains. “So many mommy bloggers have spoken about postpartum depression. The first example was probably Dooce [www.dooce.com/, by Heather Armstrong]. She posted very liberally about checking herself into a psych ward and saying ”˜I take antidepressants’. There’s a trickle-down effect. Now on mommy blogs, if someone says, ”˜I’m bummed out,’”¦people aren’t blinking any more.”¦The wealth of support in social media is huge.”
To help others understand how blogging can diminish the stigma associated with mental illness, Atrill will be speaking at the upcoming Mental Health Camp. Taking place on Saturday (April 25) at WorkSpace (400–21 Water Street), the event will explore ways social networking can smash stereotypes and how people who have mental illnesses can support each other through on-line exchanges.
Along with local counsellor Isabella Mori—who also has her own blog—Raul Pacheco is helping organize the “unconference”. An environmental researcher who’s also a social-networking consultant and active blogger, Pacheco tells the Straight in a phone interview that the idea for Mental Health Camp came out of Northern Voice, a personal-blogging and social-media conference held earlier this year.
“We had a panel called Coping Digitally,” Pacheco explains, noting that response was overwhelmingly positive. However, there wasn’t enough time to delve into the issues surrounding mental health and how the on-line community can destigmatize mental illness. “There was just a cry for more of this kind of information. It was clear we needed more time and space for this.
“We want to look at how people with mental illnesses can empower themselves, how they can use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr to bring their stories out.”¦Once you tell a story, someone will find it and connect with you. Building a community is the beauty of social media. There’s a whole community that cares for you and encourages you; it’s a way of transmitting love electronically—as weird as that sounds.”
Pacheco says that although he doesn’t have a mental illness himself, he turned to on-line writing as a way of coping with the pressures of getting his PhD.
“I turned to blogging, to Twitter, to share how I feel,” Pacheco explains. “It’s a way of making new friends, of releasing tension.”
He says some bloggers choose to reveal their true identities while others are more comfortable being anonymous. The pros and cons of each will also be covered at Mental Health Camp.
“Some people decide to go anonymous; they don’t like the feeling of being under the microscope, in the fishbowl,” he says. “It’s not for everyone.”
Furthermore, bloggers can sometimes be threatened by “cyber bullies”. “We’ll give participants tools on how to deal with those,” Pacheco says.
Mental Health Camp has an array of other presentations, including a session on mental-health services and stigma in Vancouver’s ethnic communities; a talk by Taryn Gunter of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Vancouver-Burnaby branch on why the organization is involved in social media; a look at the positive side of ADD in adults by ADD coach Pete Quily; and Mori’s interactive workshop on how blogging can lead to a place of healing and creativity.
Pacheco notes that the B.C. Mental Health Foundation will be donating lunch, and that although admission is by donation, no one will be turned away for lack of money.
After all, social networking is all about community.