You’ve seen Charles Schulz‘s classic Peanuts cartoon featuring Charlie Brown seated in front of Lucy at a makeshift stand with a sign reading “Psychiatric Help: 5 cents.” He tells her his problems and she gives bad advice. It’s funny, in a comic strip.
But in real life, what are the consequences?
On Twitter, there’s a new upsurge in accounts from teens offering counseling to their peers. Peers who are suicidal, who have eating disorders, who self-harm, with depression and anxiety and social issues. Young people who tweet about how much they want to cut after being bullied on Facebook.
These are serious issues warranting professional attention, but for many reasons they aren’t getting it. Instead they are offering help to one another.
Living with depression, abuse, and other issues, they are inspired by Demi Lovato and Lady Gaga to be open about mental health issues while connecting to fellow Lovatics and Beliebers and Little Monsters online. They’re seeing #staystrong and #loveislouder and #butterflyproject hashtag messages. Drawing strength from other survivors, they are inspired to offer support, inviting strangers to message them for advice. It doesn’t matter that they have no experience or education. Desire and technology are enough.
These accounts have snowballed in recent months and I’m now following about 170, adding more daily. I’m not sure what the initial spark was, but they’re inspired by and following each other, leading to exponential growth, and they quickly gather hundreds of followers. #staystrong is the most popular hashtag but not the only one, and they’re not limited to fans of just one artist.
Sample profiles include:
“I’m just a 14 year old girl who self harms, yeah i’m kinda messed up, but i’m always here if anyone needs to talk.”
“Trying to be strong and recover, here to help, DM me xxx”
“16. Ana & Mia, Self-Harm, Depression, Suicide attempts. Now fully recovered. I live my life to assist others. DM, e-mail. Confidential.”
“hey i’m 13, i cut myself 🙁 but you can ask me anything! i will be there for u!”
Peer support is a wonderful thing, growing as an organized, credentialed field, and includes some core concepts that these grassroots efforts lack. One is to already be in an advanced state of recovery, having received treatment and maintaining stability with ongoing support. Another is to be careful not to share your experiences in a way that can be triggering to the person you’re supporting.
You can’t save a drowning person if you’re not strong enough to swim. If someone is struggling against an urge to cut, but you’re tweeting that you just cut, that’s not helpful, and it can be the opposite. Also, if following accounts of hundreds of girls saying they want to cut, it will influence you to want to do it. Social influence – psychology and marketing tell us it has a strong impact. I asked one girl if this happens to her and she said yes but it was still worth it to help other people. But at 13, peer pressure is hard to fight.
With the best of intentions and armed with social media these young adults are reaching out to others who, like them, are desperate for help in dark times. Sometimes they inadvertently trigger each other by sharing trite and uninformed messages. Sometimes it’s by talking about eating disorder tribulations. Sometimes it’s about cutting. Scariest, though, is when it’s suicide. I’ve seen dialogues involving statements like, “Don’t do it! If you do it, I’m doing it too!” and “If she’s doing it, I’m doing it!” Suicide contagion is a real phenomenon that can result from reading about completed suicides, and reading suicidal thoughts from a live stranger can inspire people to form pacts, at worst, or feel more hopeless alone. They might not seek help. Especially if it’s coming from a place offering help.
There’s no way to guide or police these accounts, since they aren’t organized, and don’t violate any terms of service. Anyone can offer advice on Twitter — it’s free speech.
If anything it would be great to encourage youth to keep helping, study mental health and pursue it as a career. Suicide hotlines would love more volunteers, as well.
But teens aren’t using phones, they’re on Twitter and texting and IMing and services have not kept apace. Due to privacy, training, and technical constraints there are no official suicide prevention services on Twitter offering online counseling. Which is one reason why these do-it-yourself accounts exist: demand is there, but services are not. They’re filling a void. Another is that although some (non-Twitter) online services do exist (eg. CrisisChat, Teenlink), teens maybe don’t know it, marketing hasn’t reached them. In that case, tweeting links to services like those will help awareness spread.
I wonder what will happen from here. Certainly, teens will continue to help each other, trigger each other, and struggle through adolescence together as they grow up sharing new technology and adapting it to their own needs.