Some time spent online will tell you a lot about what you need to know on the state of mental health, and the shaky framework in place IRL that’s meant to aid it. A quick search will tell you that young people in the UK face some of the “lowest levels of mental wellbeing in the world”, though specialist services are turning away nearly one in four of those who come to them for help. More than a third of girls in England suffer from depression and anxiety, and LGBT people are suffering from mental health issues at a rate 15 per cent higher than the rest of the population, but MH services in the NHS suffer disproportionately, leaving thousands in the lurch.
Though the digital sphere can be an environment that breeds insecurity or encourages a descent into reclusiveness, it can also be a space of solace, learning and self-care. Instagram introduced a trial feature to help you mind other people’s wellbeing; there’s zines and DIY projects filling the gaps that therapy might not, prominent musicians posting their notes on IG about their attempts to take their own lives, personal anxieties and eating disorders, and meme groups birthed across Facebook that keep us coping.
@everydaycarebot is a Twitter bot created by journalist and author Emily Reynolds that’s offering hands-on self-care advice for people online. At 23-years-old, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and has experienced depression, mania and psychosis. Her book, A Beginner’s Guide To Losing Your Mind, drops this week – a sobering real life how-to for people navigating their own mental health, as well as advice for those around them. @everydaycarebot joins a small Twitterverse enclave (there’s the brilliant @tinycarebot and Femsplain’s latest venture, @aloebud too) that tweet reminders to help you look after yourself. It offers small and practical steps to helping yourself, balancing the more indulgent acts of self-love with encouragement to do those things you really just have to do. Though brief and blunt, faceless but friendly, it won’t magically restore mental health, but it gavlinises the ultimate act of collective resistance with self preservation in small, simple ways.
We chat to Emily below about @everydaycarebot and the power of the internet in helping us navigate what can feel like the abyss.
do you need to make a doctor's appointment? make a doctor's appointment— practical self-care (@everydaycarebot) February 16, 2017
What was the initial idea behind the bot?
Emily Reynolds: I originally got the idea from work I was already doing around self-care. I’ve just written a book about mental health, and the whole aim of that was similar – providing genuinely practical advice. As someone with mental health problems, I’ve often found the literature or discourse around it frustratingly out of touch – there’s misery memoirs and more academic textbooks and not much in-between. I’ve always tried to fill that gap a bit by giving people extremely practical and really honest advice, so that’s where my interest in basic self care came from.
My interest in self-care is personal – I have bipolar disorder, so I often find it hard to look after myself. This manifests in really basic ways – I often can’t shower, I struggle to leave the house, I don’t eat well, I basically don’t look after myself at all. I’ve spent a long time searching for, reading and collating my own research on self care simply because I struggle so much with it. Much of what’s out there, similarly, is really not helpful – I’m not going to engage in exercise when I can’t even get out of bed, for example.
With regards to actually creating the bot, I’d seen a few other self-care bots that send periodic reminds to look after yourself, but they were really vague and, in my mind, not particularly helpful for people with more severe problems. There’s definitely value for a lot of people in positive affirmations, but if you’re really struggling to cope then I think there needs to be a much more down to earth, back to basics approach.
What is its primary aim?
Emily Reynolds: Its mission is to actively improve people’s lives in a series of very, very small ways. I’m not expecting it to change people’s lives, but I hope by reminding people to make doctor’s appointments or deal with their bills or have a wash in the sink if they can’t manage a shower, I am making their day a little bit better.
It's clear there's a serious lack of funding/attention for mental health services. How can the bot contribute to the positive?
Emily Reynolds: The lack of funding in mental health at the moment can only be described as a crisis, I think. An offshoot of that is that people are trying desperately to tend to the absolutely gaping wounds of a decimated NHS. Activists, charities and community groups are trying – with limited resources of their own – to protect people with mental health problems. It’s amazing to see people come together – particularly when I talk to activists with a similarly political outlook on mental health – but the fact that they’re having to do this stuff is really, really worrying.
Obviously having a Twitter bot send you a reminder to take your meds or wash your face isn’t going to plug the gaps in services that people really need, especially in a crisis – when someone’s psychotic, for example, it’s probably going to be close to useless. So if the bot does slightly help people who can’t get seen by a doctor or who can’t get the right diagnosis or have no formal therapeutic support network then I’m really pleased, but I wish that it was supplementary rather than a necessity.
take! your! meds!— practical self-care (@everydaycarebot) February 14, 2017
go through your wardrobe and get rid of things you don't wear— practical self-care (@everydaycarebot) February 9, 2017
What has the response from other users been like?
Emily Reynolds: I’m really pleased how useful people are finding it – people have tweeted me to tell me how useful they’ve been finding it, and the bot itself often gets replies and quote tweets from people saying it reminded them to take their medication or do something to make themselves feel safer or calmer.
And how did you come up with its tweets?
Emily Reynolds: It was a fairly simple process – I literally just thought of a list of around 100-150 things that help me when I’m finding it hard to function. I’d already made a personal list to remind me of what I could do when I’m depressed, so I stole a lot of the more universally applicable ones from there. I also took suggestions from friends who have chronic mental health problems.It was really important to me that I wasn’t tweeting things that people who were going through crises would find absolutely impossible, so I made sure that anything I tweeted was broken down into very small constituent parts and treated those separate parts accordingly.
How much do you see the Internet as a positive or negative force on mental health?
Going online and finding people who were also struggling was a really big thing for me – it took me 10 years to get a proper diagnosis and lots of negative experiences with healthcare professionals, so being able to go online and find a community of people who understood me – and, really importantly, believed me – was an incredibly important thing. There are obviously bad points: when I’m depressed I’m more likely to stay online and talk to strangers on Twitter than I am to talk to friends in real life or actually leave the house at all, and although it’s definitely comforting, I’m not sure how healthy it is.
But on a wider level, I think the Internet is an amazing place for people to speak out about their mental health and to help one another, to gain a political and intersectional understanding of mental health outside of their own experiences.
if - AND ONLY IF - you feel stable enough, take time to block or mute triggering websites, people or phrases— practical self-care (@everydaycarebot) February 16, 2017
compile an emergency list - people or organisations to contact in a crisis. give it to someone close to you if you feel comfortable doing so— practical self-care (@everydaycarebot) February 6, 2017
Why do you think this project is so necessary right now?
Emily Reynolds: In terms of people’s day-to-day experiences, I think it’s really important to have little reminders that looking after yourself is valuable. Low mood often comes with low energy and low self esteem, so for me, having non-judgemental, easy to complete task reminders is a way to very slightly break that cycle.
I also want people to think about self-care more consciously, which a constant stream of recommendations helps facilitate. By that I mean a few things: I want people to think about the ways in which they care for themselves, and re-examine how deserving of care they think they are when they’re ill (I often feel like I don’t deserve to have a shower or get out of bed, and so I won’t do them).
I’m also hoping that, by presenting my own idea of what self-care looks like, I can help people think more critically about the way ‘self care’ as a concept is being sold to them by people who really don’t understand or care about mental health problems in a profound way. I think at the moment, ‘self care’ as presented in popular discourse has been reduced to ‘buy yourself things’, which means that companies are monopolising on and profiting from both people’s inability to cope and genuinely radical ideas about caring for yourself.
(Emily has written about this particular topic in her very, very good newsletter here)
A Beginner’s Guide To Losing Your Mind is out February 23
Follow Anna Cafolla on Twitter here @annacafolla