Mental illness is still highly stigmatized, but we’ve come a long way. Now people actually feel comfortable sharing their stories without fear of becoming a pariah or even getting detained. Sometimes it can go too far, and there’s a lot of reasons why we need to be careful sharing our mental health stories.
As a journalism graduate, I was media trained on reporting on sensitive cases such as suicide. However even before we had this class, I had a strong idea myself. Just because you might not be a journalist, doesn’t mean you’re excused from not educating yourself. People have so little trust left in traditional journalism now that they’re trusting bloggers and social media more.
There’s also a lot of journalists who either weren’t media trained in this area and are blissfully ignorantly causing harm, or they don’t care because they think clicks are more important than having a moral responsibility. There are some papers I’m betting the latter. I’ve seen highly respected media organizations do everything wrong in this area.
Even though bloggers, and sometimes media organizations, mean well, we need to be careful sharing our mental health stories.
Why you should share your story
Sharing your story mental health story offers hope to people struggling with similar issues. It says “I survived, you can too”. People often share how they survived, and what they did to cope. Although different things worked for different people, someone with lived experience can offer practical advice.
It also helps eradicate the stigma. A lot of mental illnesses, specifically personality disorders, get dehumanized so it helps people see that you’re no different than them.
Sharing your story can save lives, but unfortunately, sometimes it can cost them which is why you need to be careful sharing your mental health story.
It’s understandable to feel the need to tell people exactly what you would do if discussing self-harm, a suicide attempt or an eating disorder. You want people to understand how bad it really was, and self-destructive behaviours can do that.
Social media can be beautiful, there are lots of support groups, and projects to help encourage other people to get better. However, it’s important to be careful because the risks are very serious.
But leave the details out.
The eating disorder recovery community can be divided about before and after pictures. Some would say that showing the before could be a thinspiration for someone who’s still sick. Even though I might personally find them inspiring because people look so much happier in the after photos its best to air on the side of caution, and don’t share them.
Posting pictures of self-harm is a big no no. It can trigger people trying to recover. If you want to reach out for help, sending pictures of cuts is absolutely not how to go that. This doesn’t mean if you have self-harm scars you should hide them. There’s a difference between happening to have scars, and taking a picture of fresh cuts. It’s the picture where the fresh cuts are the focus that’s the problem. This also means don’t share what you use and where you harm yourself either because it can give someone ideas. Vic Fuentes from Pierce the Veil is a very notable celebrity open about having struggled with self-harm in the past, but has always been careful enough not to let slip where and what he would do. He’s been able to use it to help his own fans.
The Damage Caused
A well meaning show, I won’t name, with a story arc about a character with an eating disorder gave others tips on how to trick people into thinking they were recovering.
Shane Dawson is a creator with good intentions but he was called out for being insensitive during his Jake Paul series when talking about sociopaths. He learned quickly and was more careful when talking to Eugenia Cooney. Even as someone with an eating disorder himself, he even “slipped up” and said things to her that might not be appropriate for someone recovering from an eating disorder to hear. Some also felt it was still problematic to show flashback videos to what she looked like before recovery. Although Eugenia always discourages it, a lot of comments on her videos are from fans saying she’s their thinspiration and that they wish they looked like her. The difference between Eugenia and thinspos is that Eugenia never shared or encouraged eating disorder behaviours.
It took 13 Reasons Why two years to put a trigger warning on the suicide scene they were explicitly told by mental health professionals not to show. There was a 28.9% increase in teen suicide after 13 Reasons Why came out, that’s 195 suicides more than the average suicide rate. Jay Asher, the author, might have meant well, Selena Gomez might have meant well, but someone behind the scenes didn’t. Some of those suicides were direct copycats. 13 Reasons Why is a poor representation of mental health, mental illness, and teen suicide. It’s caused more harm than good, even one copy cat would be too much but almost 200 is abhorrent!
I’m not getting on a high horse here. I’ve made these mistakes too. These are mostly done with good intentions but I know better now and now you do too. When a publication or a show slips up, call them on it. They have a bigger responsibility and influence than me and you do.
What can you do
Make sure to put appropriate trigger warnings if you decide to share your mental health story. I know the internet ruined trigger warnings, but in this area they’re necessary. Sometimes they go too far, we shouldn’t have to trigger warning every single thing we post, but they’re worth adding to sensitive topics.
You can tell your story, and talk about how you felt without having to explain what you would do to yourself if you have self-destructive tendencies. If people don’t think it was “that bad” because you didn’t include this information, that’s their problem, not yours.
If you’ve already posted your story and now realise it could have unintentionally been harmful, you can go back and take some details out or re-word it. Not everyone automatically realises why we need to be careful sharing our mental health stories. Don’t be too hard on yourself, you meant well. You should also be proud of yourself for opening up, it’s not easy!