Why Twitter Is a Great Place to Talk About Mental Illness

Sometimes having to compete with hundreds of hashtags is a good thing.

(Photo: TakePart)

Jan 29, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Twitter is known for its 140-character feuds between celebrities—one with Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, and Amber Rose made plenty of headlines this week. But as a hashtag that trended in the United States on Wednesday night proves, the social media platform has become a space for more than just fights among dueling rappers.

In the hopes of destigmatizing mental health challenges, thousands of people wrote or shared tweets using the hashtag #MentalIllnessTaughtMe. The posts feature personal stories about finding inner strength and taking the brave step of asking for help.

“Through Twitter, it’s a lot lower stakes to have a conversation,” José Rivera Jr., social media manager for Project UROK, told TakePart. The New York–based organization works to end the stigma around mental illness by creating and posting video testimonials where people look into the camera and share their experiences. Tweeting a few sentences under a hashtag can be an easy way to join the conversation and find support.

“I think it can feel like—because there’s such a glut of content—that your at-reply is not going to be seen,” Jenny Jaffe, Project UROK’s founder, explained.

Talking about mental health online is especially popular with young people, who might struggle to talk to their families or seek out mental health professionals. A 2015 survey by Time to Change, a U.K. mental health organization, found that nearly half of people under the age of 21 find it easiest to talk about their mental health problems online.

Approximately 18.5 percent of Americans experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But the social stigma associated with mental illness can prevent people from getting the help they need. Organizations such as NAMI and Australia’s Reach Out have long championed social platforms as a way to share resources and start conversations that can help end the stigma.

The hashtag #MentalIllnessTaughtMe was attached to a Canadian mental health organization, Bell Let’s Talk. Every tweet that included the #BellLetsTalk hashtag resulted in a 5-cent donation to mental health initiatives. Those little donations added up, totaling more than $6 million, according to Bell Let’s Talk’s figures.

While the donations will go a long way to help fund research and workplace programs in Canada, Jaffe and Rivera think there’s power just in sharing experiences online.

“It was so amazing yesterday to see everyone kind of just blossom—people who said they hadn’t even shared before—use the hashtag to find people to talk to,” Rivera said. “It’s just one way...to open up and talk about something so many people suffer with.”

Of course, there are some fairly obvious issues that one could encounter with talking about mental health online. There’s no guarantee that the tweets will provide useful or accurate information, and there’s always the possibility that a troll will take over a hashtag and turn it into a hurtful joke. But Jaffe and Rivera said that more often than not, the tweets are supportive, helpful, and empowering.

“When you put your story out there about something like mental illness, what you find is you’re going to have a lot more support, a lot more sympathy, a lot more people relating to you than you would have expected,” Jaffe explained. “That was my experience with it. That’s where Project UROK came from—this realization that there is this network of people out there who are receptive to these stories.”