Mental health and the web

It might seem somewhat ironic (and possibly hypocritical) to be posting a piece on the possible downside of the web in relation to mental health.  After all, my hope is that people who are interested in mental health will read it – on the web!  However, life is full of irony, not to say hypocrisy and contradiction, so I will take the risk.

What I want to look at here is to what extent the web can, on the one hand, be a useful resource for people with mental health problems; and on the other hand, to what extent it might actually exacerbate such problems.  As with most things in life, I suspect the answer is not as straightforward as it may seem.

To address the first part of the question: there is no doubt that the web can be an invaluable resource for people with a whole range of psychological difficulties.  Not only can the web provide information on virtually every known (and not so well-known) mental health problem under the sun, but it can also provide access to a plethora of social networking groups and support forums.  Just to give a simple example of the latter, the Mumsnet website and blog network has literally hundreds (if not thousands) of ‘conversations’ on various aspects of mental (ill) health.  And just to be clear, this is not about mental health professionals giving online advice, but peer-to-peer networking and support.

And, of course, most people in the mental health ‘business’, including myself, have an online presence nowadays.  Some have taken this even further and provide online therapy via email and Skype.  So there is certainly no lack of ‘web presence’ with regards to resources for people with mental health problems.

However, there is another side to all this.  And I’m not thinking so much about the problem of ‘internet addiction’, although this is, of course, a problem for some people.  Rather, I’m thinking about the nature of the web environment itself.  In many ways the modern web (or Web 2.0 as some commentators like to describe it) is the realisation of the post-modernist’s dream (or nightmare); Baudrillard’s hyper-reality made flesh.  Essentially, the (post) modern web is a universe in its own right, a virtual reality par excellence.   In Lacanian terms we could think of it as an imaginary universe.  Of course, such imaginary universes are nothing new; think of TV, think of cinema, think of various works of art.  However, the term ‘imaginary’ should not be taken to mean ‘fictitious’ or ‘unreal’.  Rather, it means in the realm of the Image.  It is the world of appearance, of facade.  And the web takes this world of images to another level.

Online, even relationships between people become ‘imaginarised’.  This is not to suggest that people cannot relate to one another over the web; on the contrary, they can do this far more than they ever could before, and on a truly global level.  And neither is it to argue that, ‘pre-web’, social relationships were somehow more ‘real’ or ‘authentic’.  However, what exactly is the nature of such ‘imaginarised’ relationships, and to what extent does the web encourage them?

I would argue that such relationships are, in a sense, simulations. Some astute readers will have already picked up the association of this term back to Baudrillard, who I mentioned earlier.  The key point about simulations is not that they are ‘fake’ or ‘unreal’.  Rather, they have a reality of their own, which is different to ‘real-world’ reality.  At this point, it is probably clear that I see the idea of ‘reality’ itself as somewhat problematic.  So perhaps it might be better to talk about relationships between flesh and blood, embodied human beings, as opposed to the type of relationships that take place over the web.

Going back to the issue of mental health support on the web, it certainly is possible to engage in a form of therapy online.  However, this is not the same as the encounter of two (or more) people in a room; two flesh and blood, embodied people.  Of course, one of the attractions of online relationships is that it’s precisely this encounter between real, live, flesh and blood, embodied human beings that can be avoided..