As a professional peer specialist, I have had the opportunity to attend many professional events and conferences with other peers, both within the New York City community, and also beyond within New York State. Always at these events, there are familiar faces to reunite with, and new people to meet and chat up. All of us are passionate, in our own unique ways, about mental health advocacy, its political cause and the eradication of social stigma.
At these gatherings, many peers and allies facilitate workshops and lectures, and attendees can choose to attend those that pique interest. I always learn something new, and I get the chance to network…
Network… I hate that word.
Let me just say instead: connect. I connect with new people, because that’s what it feels really like! Socializing at peer events is not merely about greasing the right wheels to find a higher-paying job at another agency (although certainly this happens). No… there is much much more. There is the social cause that we all fight for. The desire to unite together, creating strength in numbers.
Being around these great people has inspired me to find my own voice as a mental health advocate too. A year-and-a-half ago, I started a WordPress blog and opened a Twitter page. To generate a following, I searched terms such as #schizophrenia and #mentalhealth to find users with my similar interest, and then followed them. Many of these people followed me back. Doing this alone allowed me to accumulate about 2000 followers in one full year. It was a slow process, requiring a lot of consistent effort, not skipping a day. Perseverance paid off.
I also had a vision for creating a “mental health discussion forum,” one which embraced the specific values of professional years. So I started a Facebook group. Again, it started small. There were also conflicts between members and other distressing situations that jeopardized the group’s cohesiveness. At times, I would spend hours trying to put out these fires, chatting one-on-one with members to hear them out, and also managing the page closely, making sure that posts remain supportive and non-antagonizing.
After about a full year, the group began to develop steadily on its own. I suppose there is a bit of word-of-mouth going on, because we get one to three new member requests almost daily. There are now about 620 members, and many people are regular posters and silent loiterers. (I can confirm the latter, because several people have told me that they enjoy reading, although not inclined to post.)
I am happy that the group has allowed me to share my own approach to recovery with others. For me, I attempt recovery by maintaining a curious attitude. When I am distressed in a situation, whether it be anxiety or paranoia, I think of a friend that I admire, who maybe displays a sense of emotional mastery that I admire. I ask questions:
I’m so nervous about this upcoming deadline… I see you and you seem so calm all the time, even though you’re working a stressful job. How do remain calm?
I want to have more confidence with dating. I see that you are friendly and assertive when approaching women you like. How are you so confident in these situations?
I’m paranoid that this guy hates me. What do you think?
I never run out of questions to ask. Sometimes I think I’m a pestering parasite, but then I think again. Some of my best friends are people who have stuck with me, patiently answering my questions for years. 6, 7, 8 years’ worth of online chatting. My questions are creative and interesting, and as my friends answer, I think they get to thinking themselves. It also helps them feel good, because my curiosity is rooted in a sense of admiration. As years pass by, these friendships even out into a consistent, rock-solid dynamic. This is how I really come to know people and their baseline. If I am compatible with a person’s baseline, and they mine, then that friendship is unshakable.
This dynamic of curiosity, and the resultant bonding yielded from honest answers, is what I want to infuse into my Facebook group. In the process of discussion of various concepts, questions and experiences, we go beyond talking about ourselves. We go beyond sharing our stories. Surely, we share in the process, but we also share our opinions with one another. We also each introspectively brainstorm within, trying to formulate opinions on issues that we never before considered. I believe that this process exercises the brain, allowing for a person to develop more confidence and resiliency within him/herself. In turn, this can empower a person to better manage their mental struggles, in a way that is perfectly tailored to the individual.
In this process, members of my Facebook group start to forge genuine friendships with one another. So often, we lament that it is impossible to make real friends online, because we are not face-to-face. But it IS possible! As I run the group, I try to model a type of messaging that encourages this type of interaction. Principles I maintain:
- Writing in complete sentences, maintaining correct spellings and grammar, aiming for eloquence.
- In response to others’ postings, fully absorbing the content before responding.
- Searching within myself to always have an attitude of gratitude towards all members, even in times of conflict and disrespect.
- Smoothing over episodes of conflict and disrespect thoroughly, without stepping on toes if possible.
- Using emojis and stickers to convey non-verbal communication that emotionally touches.
And perhaps a more strange strategy:
- Writing in such a way, that the physical appearance of what I write is appealing to the eye.
I want to open people up to the idea that online communication can be as fruitful and fulfilling as face-to face contact. Online communication is the future. It is the present! We must navigate it in such a way that it is emotionally satisfying. We must learn how to “read between the lines,” to surmise a person’s intent strictly by what they write. I believe this is possible. If we develop this skill within ourselves, we can then feel more confident and fulfilled in our interactions.
I’ve now discovered, that my unique mental health advocacy voice is rooted in social media. The maintenance of my Facebook group has taken priority over my writing of articles and blog entries. I always wish I had more time to write, but then I step back and see the bigger picture. Mental illness is an experience that can serve to isolate a person. It is a condition that can impair a person socially. And so, could not the resolution be social?
These ideas will develop further as the group continues to evolve. Eventually, I want to put together a power point presentation of the Facebook group’s inspirations and concepts, and then present it at mental health events… worldwide! Small steps, but big dreams. For me, my guiding light through this whole process is the desire to connect people together. So many of us mental health advocates are out there in little pockets and corners of the internet. I want to find them, and bring us all together into the group. We are strong together!
And… if you’re interested in joining my group, you should! It is called:
“What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group”
See you there!!