Untrained Bloggers Are Trying to Counsel Suicidal Teens on Tumblr

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Untrained Bloggers Are Trying to Counsel Suicidal Teens on Tumblr

Legions of young girls are consulting untrained professionals online for advice about their depression and anxiety.
July 9, 2015, 6:03pm

Examples of some of the questions asked on Tumblr

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

If you're feeling anxious or depressed, let somebody know. It's vital that you do, because human beings are generally pretty good sounding boards, and talking about it with somebody you trust is often the first step toward getting professional help.

Of course, that professional mental health treatment is severely lacking. Last year, the charity MIND revealed that, over the past two years in the UK, four in ten people who've tried to access therapy have had to wait more than three months after being referred by their GP, with one in ten waiting over a year. While waiting for treatment, four in ten people harmed themselves and one in six attempted suicide.

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So people find alternatives. They go private, they subscribe to WebMD newsletters, they call the Samaritans. But some—mostly younger girls—have been turning, in their droves, to Tumblr. The social networking site hosts over 225 million blogs, covering everything from hypebeast fuckboys posting Young Thug videos and photos of Rick Owens Springblades, to people who've become agony aunts to a legion of followers. These bloggers raise awareness of mental health issues and offer advice to sufferers, who in turn have the blanket of online anonymity, allowing them to speak about issues they may not yet have the confidence to address IRL.

Problem is, many of these anonymous followers are suffering from legitimate mental health issues, and the majority of agony aunts are unqualified, doling out advice they're not necessarily in the best position to give. Online agony aunts are nothing new, but guidance given by untrained young people—most of the "advisers" on Tumblr are between 19 and 24—could potentially end up doing more harm than good. With many of the Tumblr blogs publishing queries on domestic violence, overcoming panic attacks, and rape support, replies should be provided with utmost care.

In the UK, we (just about) have the NHS, where we can access some mental health treatments for free, but it's clearly not enough: longer waiting times and generic answers are beginning to take their toll on those desperate for help, so can we really blame these young people for shying away from traditional methods and instead being drawn online?

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I spoke to licensed chartered psychologist, Dr. Jane McCartney, who told me, "It's completely understandable to want to get help as soon as possible, but who the help is from is just as important." Registered with the British Psychological Society (BPS), McCartney has experience treating a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, eating disorders, anger management, and depression. "No one wants to feel like they're alone, and talking does help to 'normalize' a situation, but if a person is feeling unwell, talking to their GP is the best thing to do," she said. "There are also helplines, if a person needs an immediate response, because these people are also qualified."

Raevin, who runs sheabutterbitch.tumblr.com, is one of many agony aunts on Tumblr. In her early 20s, she usually withholds her age from askers. "I choose not to put my exact age out there because most people think I'm a lot older, so are more comfortable telling me things," she said. "People way older than me have said I'm like a big sister to them." Currently a psychology and sociology major in the US, Raevin's advice Tumblr picked up 20,000 followers after only five months. I spoke to her about offering advice online.

A picture Raevin sent of herself

VICE: Hey, Raevin. Why did you start your Tumblr advice blog?
Raevin: I genuinely love to help people, especially with psychology as one of my majors. I felt that once I incorporated that knowledge with my own personal experiences, I'd have a lot better insight on people's problems and going about creating a platform to help them.

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What age are most of the people who ask for your advice?
The ages normally range from about 12 to 24, or the asker may just say they're in middle school, high school, or working. It's really interesting, because the older ages come to me about relationship problems and the younger askers inquire about feminism and racism.

And would you say the askers are mostly women and girls?
Generally, the askers are women or members of the LGBTQ community, who don't specify their pronouns/gender to me. Most of my followers are from the US, Canada, and the UK, that I know of, but I don't really make specifying their ASL [age, sex, and location] a requirement before coming to me.

Which subjects do you deal with most?
The subjects range from relationships and healthy living to social justice, but most of the questions I get relate to depression and suicide. It's mostly 13 to 15-year-olds [asking about these topics].

How do you respond to such sensitive questions? Are you not worried that you'll give the wrong advice?
I can relate, as that was the age I attempted suicide. I try to be as realistic as possible, as I know what it's like dealing with most of these situations, and I'll try not to give solutions that I'm sure they've already heard. I also try to put myself in—or back into—their position, because most of the time I've been there before.

Usually the askers are anonymous, so I try not to be ableist or assume this person's physical, emotional, or financial state. It's important to give as many options as possible and take into account almost every possible life scenario this person may be going through. I'll also try to be extremely detailed so nothing gets skewed, giving step-by-step directions, and sometimes even providing links to videos or web posts that may be able to assist them further.

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Do you currently suffer from anything yourself?
Yes, I have bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, bulimia, and anorexia. I also have fibromyalgia, among other less-severe physical illnesses.

Do you receive any professional help?
I have supportive friends and family, but I'm not very good at handling my own problems, sort of like the saying, "Who is the therapist's therapist?" I'm grateful for that, though, because I know what it's like to be extremely hopeless and not know what to do. So that gives me the incentive to go the extra mile. I don't receive professional help, but I have a friend—with benefits—who has been extremely supportive.

Do you think there are dangers to unqualified agony aunts giving advice on Tumblr?
Yeah, there is definitely a danger. After all, we're mostly young and unqualified. I don't diagnose, but I've seen people write that an asker has a certain illness. It's not their place to diagnose. I never tell people they have an illness. I feel like I'm here to listen and make the person feel better. Replies like, "People are dying, so be grateful for your life" are not helpful to someone who is suffering.

Why do you think people are so drawn to Tumblr advice blogs run by young people?
Tumblr advice is free, and you don't have to wait months to speak to someone. There are loads of psychiatrists who write off their patients' feelings to "being a teen," or "just normal feelings," when they're not. Then these people come online. Professional help isn't easily accessible to everyone, and most people feel like they can't wait. They just need to talk to someone who wants to listen.

Raevin clearly has the right intentions. Of the thousands of Tumblr agony aunts out there, she seems to have a handle on what kind of advice to offer, and, importantly, refuses to try to diagnose anyone. However, it's safe to say that not everyone will be as measured and pragmatic as her.

While Tumblr can act as an effective stop-gap between a referral and eventual treatment, it's imperative that if people are going to consult the site, they identify the right person to seek advice from—someone who can empathize and offer positive reinforcement—and also continue to seek professional help, instead of relying solely on the guidance of an untrained adviser.

Follow Mica Dublin and Raevin on Twitter

If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.