I have written this additional blog post about depression and the power of social media as part of Sane’s Virtual Black Dog campaign.

I have had depression off and on for most of my life. It wasn’t diagnosed until just after my daughter was born, 17 years ago, but the symptoms were there long before that. Until recently, it’s something I kept quiet about. While I wasn’t quite ‘ashamed’ of my illness, I certainly didn’t go around talking about it. After all, I’d seen how mental illness was treated on television, in the movies, by my neighbours… To admit to mental illness was to admit to madness and to invite the status of social pariah upon oneself. You’d almost think it was infectious.

By a happy coincidence, just when my depression was at its worst the internet started to take off and I have pursued an alternative virtual life since 1995.

At first I ‘met’ many wonderful people through playing games. We swapped email addresses and forged strong friendships as on-line pen-pals. I never had to worry about telling these lovely people I was depressed and felt so miserable that I couldn’t face the thought of actually having to speak to someone. These faceless men and women were a lifeline to the outside world, a safe way to experience friendship without risking rejection. Most real friends drifted away when I kept canceling meetings because I lacked the confidence to go out for anything more than bread and milk.

Time went on, the internet developed, and I joined Facebook and then Twitter. I was now seriously pursuing my writing and soon found many likeminded people. By this time I had found a medication regime which helped me and had had a year of psychotherapy but although I was on the whole well, I still had bouts of crippling depression.

One day I plucked up the courage to admit to my depression. I was feeling particularly ill – I also have fibromyalgia and was in such a lot of pain and absolutely exhausted – and I confided in a virtual friend. To my surprise, she admitted the self-same thing to me!

I soon discovered that by having the courage to admit to my own illness, other sufferers were willing, and in some cases relieved, to share their experiences with a fellow depressive. And what I found especially interesting was that so many of my new writing friends experienced depression at some point in their lives.

Knowing that I was not alone, that so many other people, many of whom I admired and wished I could be more like, were having the same fears, tears and frustrations as myself helped me more than I can really put into words. Then, instead of feeling ashamed, I began to feel angry. Angry that people with an illness no different to diabetes or arthritis were being treated in such a medieval and shocking way.

I wanted to do more than just offering support to friends; I wanted to grab society by the lapels and give them a good shake. I looked around and found Sane, an organisation which does so much to break down the old perceptions of mental illness and offer support to those who suffer from it. The information Sane has available on various mental illnesses is comprehensive and easy to understand and they provide so much support for people who don’t know where else to turn.

If you are feeling isolated and in need of someone to talk to, I heartily suggest joining Twitter and Facebook. It is relatively straightforward to find people in a similar situation to yourself – I searched for writers, followed those I found interesting and then followed the people they followed. I soon had a supportive inner circle of people who have become real friends in every sense of the word, as well as a larger network of acquaintances who are always around for a quick chat. There are many people who are happy to mention their illness in their Twitter bio. I don’t, not because I am ashamed of my depression, but because I don’t wish to be defined by it. The same goes with my fibromyalgia.

If you already have a group of online friends but feel you would like the opportunity to have a good old chin wag together, may I recommend either a Google+ Hangout or that you set up your own private, password protected chatroom. www.chatzy.com have a free option which lets up to 10 people join in a chat at any one time. The conversation can be cleared by the room administrator at the end of each session and it is wonderful to have a ‘safe’ place to share your feelings with people you trust.

If you’d like to get in touch with me, my Twitter handle is @NettieWriter and I usually have a few minutes to spare to have a chat with a new friend. Please also check out Sane’s Virtual Black Dog campaign where you can find out how using social media has helped so people with mental illness. You can follow them on Twitter on @VirtualDogSANE. They need your support too.

Whatever you do, please don’t suffer in silence or think you are alone. We are all around you and the virtual world is a good place to find us and experience the support and love that I’ve been blessed to find.

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