Don’t trash ‘safe spaces’ – this is why we need them

In psychological research, it has been put forward that lonely people, or those who do not possess good social skills, are at risk of developing a compulsive relationship with the Internet. Many people suffering from loneliness or depression may find communicating on the Internet less stressful or risky, a factor that makes interacting digitally far more appealing than face-to-face confrontations. Researchers believe that this could have negative impacts on the individual’s life, such as compromising the person’s work productivity and the ability to have meaningful relationships with the people around them.

I, however, would like to talk about the forums that console the sense of isolation some individuals feel.  On the internet, you can create safe spaces for people to be as candid as they choose to about their experiences of mental illnesses (amongst other things). A safe space can be seen as a community in which the emotional protection of its like-minded members are prioritised, which allows them to engage with each other without fear of discrimination or ridicule. How is this any less meaningful than relationships built ‘in real life’? When people interact with people who share their experience, their hope increases.

This is not to be confused with echo chambers.These online support groups usually require its members to ‘sign up’ or to have their request confirmed. These members are then expected to adhere to specific rules the forum administrators have set out to ensure that it remains an emotionally safe space.  The moderators of these online support groups exercise the right to censor the content that appears in these groups, something that is considered to be extremely limiting in the realm of the internet. However, these groups are comprised of vulnerable people who seek these groups as a refuge from an otherwise stressful environment.

These moderation rules are put into place to ensure that there are codes put in place to exclude any speech any can be considered to be a violation against social equity. According to a study, moderation are important as they affect “the way users conceive of themselves in relation to the rest of the community”

“Moderation policies of “safe space” and “free speech” can also be thought as a design choice that establishes norms of how individuals should treat each other in that discussion space” – Anna Gibson, scholar.

Some people do not belong in a geographical or social community in which their mental illnesses are understood, supported or able/willing to be treated. This could be quite detrimental to these people, as they may feel that their feelings and experiences are unwarranted or invalid, exasperating the harmful effects of the illness.

With the increase of online support groups, people no longer have to feel alone. Geography is no longer a hindrance, and people can talk to other people who understand them, who can support them and who can clear up any myths and provide valuable information. This information may not adequate if used exclusively, but it may be a great place for its members to start understanding themselves (and/or other people).

However, online support groups are not always solutions. The possibility that these groups may be used for aggravating already destructive behaviours –by encouraging acts like self-starvation and self-harm – are a real possibility.

Online safe spaces are not the only digital spaces that are spreading awareness of, starting conversations about and helping destigmatise mental illnesses and psychological struggle. Even pages with a large following, such as Berlin Artparasites’ Facebook page and the Artidote, are useful as it allows for experiences of mental illness to be spoken about, discussed and – potentially – understood by people who are not likely to join online support groups.


[Featured image by Lara Stewart.]


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