Twitter and LinkedIn activism is killing us, not lack of push notifications.
“Check on your strong friends” isn’t good enough. In fact, it’s making things worse.
“Check on your strong friends.”
In theory, this gentle encouragement can and should be taken at face value. It’s not much more than a reminder that those who put on a brave face are often the ones best suited at hiding their struggles, and are frequently the ones who play mom/therapist/mentor to others who are more vocal about their issues. There’s nothing wrong with reminding ourselves to remember the big picture: that everyone is having a hard time right now, and the world doesn’t revolve around us no matter how small the universe may seem in any given moment. If only such platitudes meant anything at all.
I’m often frustrated by social media activism, which is inherently performative and rarely enables actual widespread change. Twitter is a massive perpetrator of such performance; informational threads about current events and tragedies are often derailed by self-promotion and infighting over which organizations deserve the most attention and financial support. Twitter activism is the Gen Z version of masturbatory LinkedIn posts by recruiters sharing tales of how saintly they are for hiring someone with dreadlocks or a history of tardiness. The pandemic gave way to even more of this contrived “woe isn’t me…woe is all of us” pseudo-intellectualism; graphic news articles about local suicides are accompanied by appeals of 240 characters or fewer, mostly reminiscent of “won’t somebody think of the children??”
Even if the intention is good enough, the action is nowhere close. If preventing suicides were as easy as communicating with each other, it follows that suicide rates would decrease as technology improved. Instead, history has shown us the opposite: the abundance of options for contacting friends and family has increased alongside suicide rates in teens and young adults. Besides, people with depression and those most at risk for suicidal behavior often hide their symptoms from loved ones out of fear of rejection, embarrassment, or even fear of treatment. And who could blame them? Anyone who has experienced inpatient psychiatric treatment can attest to the fact that the “suicide ward” is no Four Seasons hotel.
This is not to say that it’s useless to check on your friends, but to act as though it could’ve saved someone from themselves is to diminish the very real pathology that makes depression and suicidal ideation so dangerous. It’s not unlike the 2017–2018 “shed the straw” campaign, which encouraged people worldwide to decrease their consumption of single-use plastics and opt for reusable metal or paper straws in place of plastic ones. The idea was not only well-intentioned, but was remarkably successful — several states across the country have proposed bans on single-use plastics, and Canada is en route to enforcing a country-wide ban by 2021. While these baby steps were meaningful and effective, they neglected to address the fact that the largest perpetrators of ocean and air pollution aren’t Sunday brunchers sipping down mimosas from disposable cups — it’s massive corporations like Nestle and Coca-Cola who prioritize affordability over sustainability.
The passive-aggression behind “check on your friends” and similar sentiments may actually do more harm than good, since it subtly places the blame for mental health crises on the people in the affected person’s life, rather than the large-scale stressors contributing to the crisis (lack of healthcare, an economic depression, lack of acceptance in one’s community, etc). Tweeting and posting about all the good deeds we should do for our sad roommates or struggling coworkers only serves to distract from the desperately lacking mental healthcare in this country — an issue that exists on a much larger scale than can be managed with a cute cat pic and useless platitude.
The same pattern can be found on a smaller scale, with businesses offering tone-deaf Free Bagel Fridays or an extra ten minutes for lunch in hopes that employees won’t off themselves with that additional free time. The myth of the American Dream tells us that to be worth something means being productive, even during a pandemic, a natural disaster, or a crisis of any kind. But ignoring mental health promotion tactics that actually work in lieu of cheap, quick-and-easy options means engaging the same kind of false activism in pursuit of saving corporate face. In the same breath that we beseech each other to “check on our friends”, we should be asking for widespread, meaningful change with scientifically-proven success:
- Company-subsidized mental healthcare and universal healthcare
- Company-subsidized subscriptions to wellness apps like Calm and Headspace
- Implementing four-day work weeks
- Unlimited sick days/paid sick leave
- Longer maternal and paternal leave
We need to think bigger than passive-aggressive calls to action on Twitter and LinkedIn. We need to be realistic about the standards we set for mental health awareness and activism, acknowledging that just because we participated in a pay-it-forward line at the Starbucks drive-through doesn’t mean the person behind us isn’t going to go home, sip their caramel brulee latte, and throw themselves off a parking garage roof. Just because we were really nice when we declined a job candidate’s application doesn’t mean that person isn’t going to skip dinner this week so he can pay rent next month. Looking at you, Brigette Hyacinth.
Fortunately, technology has also given rise to easily-accessible goods and services that we can obtain for ourselves; once we have steadied our own footing, we’re able to provide more emotional labor to those struggling with their own. It’s easier to offer meaningful assistance to others once we’ve gotten our own mental health under relative control. Below are some low-cost or free resources for self-care and care of others with an impact far beyond what can be contained within digital character limits: