An online survey found that many people with a mental illness use the internet and social media to manage their lives and make social connections.

Terri McNeilage had just completed honours at university when she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder at age 23. She had noticed symptoms since her teenage years but it wasn’t until the end of a relationship that those symptoms culminated in a major manic episode.

McNeilage had gone from school to university and into a double honours major (psychology and creative writing), staying up late to try to get through everything. The emotional stress of her life took its toll and triggered a psychotic episode, which also led to significant weight loss, spending a lot of money and becoming dysfunctional. It was a turning point for McNeilage, who moved back home with her parents and they took her to see a GP. She was diagnosed as bipolar and admitted to a private psychiatric hospital where she spent almost a month.

It was after that McNeilage says she spent time trying to understand her illness and the medication she had been prescribed to manage it. At first she made regular visits to her GP and to psychiatrists, but about a year after her diagnosis McNeilage began turning to the internet for advice. She started to understand, she says, that she could use her skills as a former student to research her condition online.

McNeilage, 34, is among many Australians with a mental illness who use the internet to research symptoms and conditions. According to a survey by mental health charity SANE Australia more than 60 per cent of respondents used the internet to search for health information.

The anonymous online survey found that many people with a mental illness are enthusiastic users of the internet and social media to manage their lives and make social connections. One third of respondents had used reputable online self-help programs, such as MoodGYM, e-couch and Anxiety Online, and many said such sites were making a real difference to their lives.

“Importantly, the majority (72.7 per cent) told us that the internet made it easier to maintain existing relationships and to make new ones,” says SANE Australia executive director Barbara Hocking.

McNeilage admits she finds using the internet less confronting and easier than having to make appointments with doctors. She says there is a long list of side-effects for the various mental illnesses and sufferers need to find their own research path to figure how best to manage them.

McNeilage is not an active participant on blogs, although she does read them. “I find blogs a little bit scary because there’s so much (information) that I can get overwhelmed,” she says. However, she does keep printouts of interesting online discussions about symptoms.

“Often with mental illness you feel like `I’m the only one that does this particular thing’ and to know that other people have those symptoms and struggle with it and have found particular ways of dealing with it is almost like somebody taking your hand and saying `it’s okay, you’re not the only one’.”

Four out of five (81.3 per cent) of the respondents to the SANE Australia survey had a Facebook account (compared with around 50 per cent for the general population), while one in three (34 per cent) had a Twitter account.

Barbara Hocking says this shows how the internet plays a valuable role in helping people overcome isolation and stay connected.
McNeilage has a Facebook account and even though she doesn’t post much about Bipolar Disorder she has connected with former high school and university friends who have also had problems with mental illness or they know somebody who has.

Her advice to other sufferers: use your research or communication skills to help yourself. “Try and be proactive because you don’t want to feel like you’re an object being treated. You are a human being and you do have a knowledge base that’s unique to you.”