Breaking the silence, setting us free
Reprinted from the "Social Support" issue of Visions Journal, 2011, 6 (4), p. 23
Like many movements, Mental Health Camp started organically. Airdrie Miller, a high school science teacher and blogger who has lived with depression for many years, had an idea. She envisioned a panel discussing the effects of people talking about their experiences with mental illness online—on blogs and on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook (see sidebar). Her idea became reality in 2009 at Vancouver’s annual blogging conference, Northern Voice. Miller invited Internet strategist Tod Maffin and me to take part. Tod, too, has lived experienced of mental illness. I have been in the counselling field since the early 1990s and have been active in Vancouver’s thriving social media scene since 2005.
The reaction to the panel, held in February 2009, was unexpectedly positive. There was quite a buzz in the hall afterwards. People commented on how important the topic was and mentioned how disappointed they were that the panel had only lasted 45 minutes.
I was hanging out with my friend Raul Pacheco-Vega at this point. Suddenly, we looked at each other and said, “Maybe we should have a mental health camp!” And thus it was born: Mental Health Camp, the conference about social media and mental health.
We didn’t waste any time: our first Mental Health Camp—the first ever conference of its kind—happened in Vancouver exactly two months later. Inspired by our success, a group of activists organized a second camp in Toronto in May 2010. And Raul and I organized a third camp, which took place in Vancouver on July 10, 2010, at the University of British Columbia. There were 30 to 60 participants at each of these conferences.
What is Mental Health Camp?
Mental Health Camp is a gathering of people who are interested in mental health. There are no ‘experts.’ Raul, for example, is an environmental scientist who is interested in mental health on behalf of his many friends who are struggling with mental health issues. Regardless of their backgrounds, therapists, consumers, journalists, mental health advocates and others all participate on the same level. And we recognize that people often occupy more than one of these roles.
Mental Health Camp is about erasing stigma and discrimination, and everyone is committed to this. We realize there are many different ways to do this using social media, such as blogging about mental health, participating in online chats and so on. Yet there is no expectation that people ‘should’ out themselves or should be loudly vocal in furthering mental health issues. Everyone does their part, whatever that happens to be.
Mental Health Camp organizers are passionate about creating a value-centred atmosphere. Inclusivity, kindness and equality drive what we do. There is also a desire to keep this on a grassroots level that values storytelling and real, lived experience. We always ensure there are people at the conferences who can provide emotional support if needed.
The conference takes place face to face, but many participants have their laptops or other mobile devices open. They may update their statuses on Twitter or Facebook with short reports, thoughts or opinions on the presentations while participating in the session.
Social Media Terms
What happens at Mental Health Camp—a sampler
At Vancouver 2009, Canadian blogger Terra Atrill spoke about mental health among so-called “mommy bloggers”—the thousands of bloggers who write about their experience as mothers. For a long time their blogging topics revolved around perfect moms driving perfect children to perfect afternoon activities in perfect cars. This was shattered when one influential mommy blogger experienced severe post-partum depression and blogged about it throughout her ordeal. This empowered other ‘perfect’ mothers to come out of hiding and talk about their mental health issues.
In Toronto, attendees and presenters formed action groups to take the ideas that arose during their event further. One idea that emerged was starting a Twitter chat group. According to Anne Ptasznik, one of the organizers of Mental Health Camp Toronto, the people interested in this chat group connected with a US-based Twitter chat group (#mhsm) and decided to band with them. The chat time was adjusted to 6 p.m. PST on Tuesdays. Anyone who wants to participate in the chat group needs to sign up for a Twitter account; a pseudonym can be used. (See glossary sidebar for more information on chat groups.)
At Vancouver 2010, sessions included a live, online radio show by Jay Peachy of CJFS (90.1 FM), which is based at Simon Fraser University. Peachy is an award-winning broadcaster and arts-based mental health advocate whose weekly radio show focuses on issues of mental wellness, creative expression and personal sustainability.
Another session looked at how blogging has helped homeless teenagers deal with mental illness. This blog—run by Covenant House, a Vancouver agency that provides housing, counselling and other services to teenagers in trouble—gives voice to the creative works of some of the young people Covenant House serves.
Typical for this type of informal conference, the Covenant House presentation was as much about engaging conversation and raising questions as it was about providing information. Questions included, for example: Is posting [the sometimes very graphic] youth art potentially harmful to the young person’s reputation, or is it an authentic and meaningful form of expression? Or, what might be the impact of “outing” oneself as a Covenant House client or as someone with mental illness?
The presenter, who had just recently started blogging, felt encouraged by the conference participants to get even more youth involved. There was a recognition that “the more ‘truth’ there is on the Web about mental health, the more people will understand the complexity and prevalence of an infliction many people will face at some point in their lives.”
Social media dos and don’ts covered
As the presentation by Covenant House shows, Mental Health Camp contains a lot of discussion of how social media can best be used, including what not to do and what to be careful about. Almost every presentation includes at least a short discussion about the boundaries of social media. Some of the boundary issues are, for example: using levels of anonymity or privacy to protect oneself from potential discrimination because of having a mental illness; handling the hostility that other social media participants occasionally display; dealing with triggers that can arise when reading or writing social media content; and so on.
Giving mental health awareness a lift
The enthusiastic tweeting of the 64 attendees at the Toronto camp brought mental health into the social media spotlight. One participant tweeted to another, “I think hanging with you today dissolved some of my internal stigma.” At one point, the Toronto Mental Health Camp became the second-most talked about topic on Twitter in Canada.
This is pioneering work; exciting work. The topic of mental health/illness often feels heavy, even musty. Injecting novelty gives the topic a lift, breathes air into it.
About the authorIsabella has been working in the field of mental health, counselling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years. She is also a blogger and a cofounder of Mental Health Camp, a conference about mental health and social media.