This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
When a friend of mine had a psychotic episode, I found out about it on social media. He deleted all of his posts and replaced them with disturbing Instagram stories, featuring obscure references to how the whole world was about to change. He started following thousands of accounts, both celebrities and normal people, and began to receive mean comments on his posts. I asked a friend to look at his stories before I watched them myself, because I was too afraid to see him being clearly not himself. It made me feel sick.
Friends and relatives of people experiencing a psychotic breakdown often say they feel like helpless bystanders. But when your friend is clearly losing it so publicly on social media, where everything you say and do is out there forever for everyone to see, it feels like they’re slipping away from you even faster. During a psychotic episode, people lose their sense of reality, become distrusting and paranoid. My friend’s actions reflected that.
One day, the same friend posted a picture from inside a hospital, with a vague caption. I later found out he’d been hospitalised, but was still allowed to use social media inside the clinic. Psychologist Marieke Pijnenborg, who specialises in psychotic disorders, says that the law in the Netherlands (where my friend and I both live) has zero restrictions on internet use for psychiatric patients. That law hasn’t been updated since 1994, a long time before the advent of social media.
Pijnenborg said the situation is delicate. While patients can find comfort in communication with loved ones, many are ashamed of their online behaviour after they recover. “They not only have to deal with processing a psychotic episode, but also with undoing the damage they’ve done online,” she said, explaining that professionals can’t monitor their patients’ social media activity because that would be a huge invasion of privacy.
Thankfully, my friend is now back home and stable. Curious about how others deal with the aftermath of their online psychosis, I asked a few people who’ve been through it to share their story.
Two years ago, I had a psychotic episode after a drug-fuelled week with very little sleep. I was hospitalised for three months and it took me over a year to start feeling like myself again. At the start of my manic period, I kept sharing songs on Instagram and Facebook – if there was a single word in the lyrics I could relate to, I thought they were about me. I shared videos of myself singing, and a picture of me hugging a tree in a park.
I also put all of my friends in a WhatsApp group. One day, I was taken from my psychiatric clinic to a regular hospital because I had a reaction to my medication. So I sent them a picture of the ambulance saying, “Check out my ride.” My friends had a hard time with these posts. When I shared a happy selfie lying in hospital with an intravenous drip, they told me they didn’t like it. But I wanted to share everything with them so badly, and I didn’t understand their comments. Looking at those messages now, I get it.
I’ve had two psychotic episodes, and I spent a lot of time on social media during both of them. I didn’t just share confusing messages, I also started my own company with a website, a blog and all. It was very different from how I usually spend my time online. Thankfully, I didn’t share any compromising content, but it was clear I wasn’t doing well.
Looking back, I’m particularly ashamed of posts involving other people. At one point, I sent totally incomprehensible emails to some of my teachers. I also applied to some vacancies because I was looking for a job. That can really hurt your reputation.
I think the internet can definitely speed up a psychosis. You can get a lot of validation for manic behaviour on social media. After the episode was over, it took a lot of effort to reverse what I did online. I’d even bought a few domains and registered my company with the Chamber of Commerce.
I had a psychotic episode at 26 when my father passed away. I bought an expensive camera and filmed everything I did. I filmed myself on a scooter, other people in the city, at the gym and so on. I put it all up on YouTube. I actually thought I had to do this, like it was my job. I thought I was helping the world with my videos and I was doing something very important.
Some fellow patients have become my good friends. Occasionally they’ll have another psychosis and share conspiracy theories online. It’s very sad to see it happen. I know they don’t actually believe those things, but people still judge.