George Mason University freshman Carmine Gothard, 18, turned anger into art as a coping mechanism for her generalized anxiety, bipolar, and post-traumatic stress disorders. She never expected to inspire so many people with her story.
Gothard was sexually assaulted when she was 7 years old.
Repressed emotion bubbled to the surface during her freshman year at Briar Woods High School, causing destructive behavior that her family could not understand. She formed connections through mental health blogs and was inspired by mental illness-themed poetry videos to document her own journey in a private blog.
The digital mental health community became a second family for Gothard, a “whole world of wonderful people to relate to and reach out to when you need someone, but don’t feel comfortable opening up to people you know,” she explained.
It is through the informal support network provided by the digital mental health community that sufferers feel free to speak openly about their struggles with mental illness. This digital safe haven connects people with similar challenges across social media platforms, chat rooms, videos, and blogs to create a community that can understand and relate.
According to Pew Research Center, the number of internet users who searched online for information about depression, anxiety, stress, or mental health issues rose from 21 percent in 2003 to 28 percent in 2009, with the majority between the ages of 18 and 29.
Adolescents and young adults were found to be the primary members of this online support network, using YouTube, Tumblr, and various other websites to promote self-acceptance and openness in their generation.
From getting help to helping others
This digital community continues to foster a generation of people who provide others with advice and share their own stories, written or spoken, to help those who are suffering.
In Gothard’s case, pent-up emotion became elegant poetry as she channeled her thoughts into writing, a therapeutic process that gave her the strength to share her experience with others.
On July 11, 2016, she presented her poem, “The Colors of My Bipolar Disorder,” in the spoken-word poetry event This Is My Brave, which was broadcasted on YouTube.
“I feel like I’ve gained so much by putting my story out there for others,” Gothard said. “The digital mental health community has given me so much inspiration to do everything I do. The more you see all these people living so bravely and sharing with the world, the more you realize that you have the power to do exactly what they’re doing, which in turn, inspires more and more people.”
Gothard also manages the web-based organization Breaking Your Silence, which provides assistance to fellow sexual assault victims and raises awareness of mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was the positive advice provided by websites like Gothard’s that inspired Keileigh Elizabeth Hill of Glasgow, Scotland to use her experience to advise others with mental illnesses. The 17-year-old plans to become a psychologist. She has already begun giving advice to her peers in online chat rooms, like katimorton.com, and making herself available every week for anyone who needs to talk.
“I chose to become a part of this community to get help, but now I mostly just go on to help other people,” Hill said. “Getting to help people through their problems or help them cope is extremely rewarding.”
After receiving a diagnosis for type 1 diabetes in her sophomore year of high school, Newport Beach, Calif. resident Sara Cohen struggled with body image and depression. She followed several mental health accounts on Instagram and communicated with others in the comments section to build her own support system.
“It’s extremely helpful to have peers to talk to and ‘be with’ virtually to get through depression, eating disorders, and other mental health struggles,” Cohen, 21, said. “I love being able to comment on someone’s post and help them out, or have a discussion about what they’re going through.”
Cohen recently celebrated the six-year anniversary of her diabetes diagnosis. She was welcomed with congratulatory comments from friends in the online community. Their support caused her to reflect on her mental health journey and take pride in the strength she developed.
An accessible resource for low-income patients
Dr. Tay Sandoz, owner of a private psychotherapy practice, noticed a slight increase in therapy requests in the last few years, paralleling the expansion of the digital mental health community.
“I find the more people learn and understand about the issues they face, the more interested they are to seek further assistance,” Sandoz said.
Additionally, Sandoz works as the program director at Child Guidance Center Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif. where he oversees a staff of therapists who treat low-income children and teens, ages 0 to 21, for a variety of emotional and behavioral problems.
“I have spoken with my patients about their involvement in the digital mental health community more and more,” Sandoz said. “Many people report doing research online to better understand their problems or discover treatments, joining support or chat groups, leveraging social media or blogs to express their feelings and ideas, or occasionally utilizing telepsychology to access a professional online.”
Low income mental health patients who are unable to afford professional help search the internet for resources and support, which largely contributes to the growth of the digital mental health community.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project 2008 Fall Tracking Survey found that the majority of people who searched online for information about mental health issues were from households with annual incomes lower than $30,000.
Insurance constraints and limited access to psychologists in low-income areas create a barrier that prevents patients from receiving the help they need. The digital community provides patients with access to professionals who perform long-distance therapy sessions and clinics, like Child Guidance Center Inc., that treat patients unable to afford regular therapy costs.
The accessibility of mental health assistance and support makes the digital mental health community a compelling resource for low-income patients and a rapidly expanding network for all.
Proceed with caution
The digital mental health community provides users with access to a large forum of information, but Dr. Karina McGovern Chace, a 44-year-old depth psychologist from Purcellville, Va., fears that people might get lost in the vast array of resources and feel disconnected.
“My concern is that more information does not necessarily mean better quality information,” Chace said.
Chace maintains a strong social media presence, communicating with her patients in person and through Facebook, her website, email, text, and long-distance phone calls. Her goal is to provide people with easy access to useful information and professional help.
“It has been a personal endeavor to be as visible and accommodating as I can be,” Chace said. “And although the online community can be helpful, I also firmly believe in the power of face-to-face relationships and being present in nature without technology. For many of my patients, the hour we spend together is some of the only time they get to unplug from the technological arena, which can be highly transformational.”
As new digital tools emerge and teenagers rely more on the internet for support, it becomes easier to connect with people online, without ever truly connecting.
“I think the online community has potential to be beneficial in that it can foster a great sense of community, but I also would encourage teenagers to proceed with some level of caution,” Chace said.
There are countless individuals on the internet claiming to be life coaches and therapists who charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for a one-hour session. They may have charming websites, but their biographies are nonexistent. No training, no degrees, and no physical address.
“Getting involved with the wrong person can do tremendous harm to an individual and can cause them to not return to mental health counseling in the future,” Chace said.
Regardless of the possible risks, the digital mental health community can unite users with a network of sincere supporters. It is through these apps and websites that people befriend some of their greatest motivators and are directed to useful information that may lead them to seek professional help.
As with everything on the Internet, there are risks involved, but when used with caution, the digital mental health community has potential to be an invaluable resource for someone with a mental illness. In this digital safe haven, no one has to struggle in silence.