In recent years, humans have – arguably – become far better equipped when it comes to talking openly and supportively about mental health.
High-profile celebs now speak freely about their struggles with depression and anxiety over social media, while glossy magazines run sympathetic think pieces about how we can tackle the stigma.
Many trendy workplaces put an emphasis on mindfulness, encouraging lunchtime meditation sessions and paid ‘duvet days’, and this is all, of course, lovely and progressive.
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There’s plenty of talking, opening up and embracing body positivity, to the extent where such vital topics often read like meaningless media buzzwords. Yet I honestly don’t think we’re at the stage of being comfortable with the symptoms of mental illness, and the varied ways in which it presents itself.
Many of us will be confident when listening to a friend talk about their struggles with mental illness in the relative privacy of a quiet bar or subdued coffee shop. Or perhaps over a shared takeaway on the sofa, years of intimacy and understanding spread between you.
We will find the right words to say, and we will know when to stay quiet and let them talk it out. We will know the right time to reach out and offer them a hug or an extra slice of pizza.
However, it’s fair to say many of us would feel less at ease with the rawer, less socially-acceptable side of certain mental illnesses. The way private pain can look to uninformed strangers while out in public.
Des, from Atlanta, Georgia, is very close with her mother, Nafiza, describing their relationship as being similar to that of ‘best friends’. A deeply caring individual, Nafiza is devoted to her three children and enjoys a variety of interests including reading and exercise.
Sadly, Nafiza also has to contend with schizoaffective disorder, a condition characterised by a combination of schizophrenic symptoms – including hallucinations or delusions – and mood disorder symptoms, such as mania or depression. This includes ‘bizarre or unusual behaviours that are out of character’, according to the Mayo Clinic.
During one such delusional episode, Nafiza ended up in a video that showed her dancing around and singing on a train. Audible sniggers could be heard in the background, and the footage quickly – devastatingly – ended up going viral.
It’s difficult to imagine how hurtful it would be to watch your beloved mum being widely mocked online, to see footage of her experiencing symptoms of profound mental illness treated as a joke or a meme. But this is exactly what happened to Des and her family.
Speaking with UNILAD, Des offered some context as to what was going on in her mother’s head at the time of the incident:
My mother began to indulge in smoking marijuana, she was in and out of mental institutions and jails, she believed she was a famous rapper.
So when she was in jail, she believed she was in the studios. She was also homeless during the time.
Although Des was still only very young at the time the video went viral, she had a pretty good idea of what was going on:
I believe I was in first or second grade, on the way to school. I used to listen to the radio on the way there and I heard what sounded like an interview from my grandmother (my mom’s mother) talking about the incident.
The rest of my family would try to hide from me what was going on with my mom. I was very young, but I was very observant and knew everything that was going on.
Des told UNILAD:
Her illness makes her isolate herself. It has made her dig into her spirituality and self reflection, to avoid repeating the same behaviours from the past.
Fortunately, Nafiza is now said to be ‘very stable’ nowadays, and is doing ‘an excellent job’ of raising Des’s two younger siblings.
Although the video is still said to be a ‘painful’ watch for her, Nafizah understands where she was mentally at that time and remains determined to not go back to that place, through taking her medication and focusing on her personal growth.
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Being a parent of a young person who seems to be struggling can be really worrying. But you're not alone, and there are places both you and your child can turn to for help. Our information for children and young people is a good place to start. Go to mind.org.uk/youngpeople for more. #ChildrensMentalHealthWeek
Viral videos can be great fun, so long as they are filmed and shared with full, informed permission from all those in the clip.
Sadly, this tidal wave force has also opened up vulnerable people to ridicule and misunderstanding, allowing complex, beloved family members to be reduced to one-line jokes and lazy memes.
It may only take a minute to like or share a clip, but this can cause lasting hurt for families like Nafiza’s, who already have to deal with so many challenges when supporting their loved one.
Des told UNILAD:
I just want people to be more aware of mental illnesses and the effects on not only the person suffering but their family as well. I think people with mental illnesses are treated as people ‘less than’. Which is not true. To me, I believe that we are all equal.
I am a very goofy person. I like to laugh and smile. But the majority of the videos that go ‘viral’ that degrade or make fun of someone else’s mental state, I scroll right pass them.
‘Going viral’ is often spoken about as something to aspire to; a chance to show the world your cracking sense of humour or shed light on a cause you care about fiercely.
Having worked for UNILAD for nearly three years, I still love viral videos of family reunions and babies hearing their mums for the first time. I love daft prank vids and record-breaking stunt clips and the potential for we non-celebs to have our stories told throughout the world.
However, on the other side of the coin, this sudden viral fame can also open up a person to cyber bullying and harassment, cruel comments and uninformed perceptions. It can distort and take away from an individual’s personal narrative, leaving them vulnerable.
Jo Loughran, director of mental health anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, told UNILAD:
It’s never okay to make a joke out of mental illness. We know that many people experiencing mental health problems already feel isolated and ashamed.
Sharing content online of someone struggling with their mental health only further adds to the stigma and misunderstanding around diagnoses like schizoaffective disorder. This stigma can make life harder for people who are already living with a real and debilitating condition.
Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder while at uni, Alexis found that exercise helped with her mental wellbeing. Now she's encouraging other students to get involved in our 27 27 running challenge, and raise awareness for better mental health. > https://t.co/qODbuOiNKG pic.twitter.com/RjLpOtYeTH
— Mind (@MindCharity) February 17, 2020
UNILAD spoke with Jo O’Reilly, digital privacy expert and deputy editor at ProPrivacy, about what you can do if you end up in a viral video that you feel either invades your privacy, or is simply something you don’t want to be seen on such a huge scale.
Jo’s advice includes:
- Find the original source that posted the video and contact the site owner requesting the video be removed
- Be persistent in requesting the video is removed as the site owner may not be under any obligation to remove the content
- GDPR in theory ensures a citizen’s rights to have their data erased from certain websites but the law isn’t all encompassing and there are exceptions
- If the video appears on social media, you can contact those sites directly to report the video and request removal – if in breach of the site’s terms of service the video will be removed
- Be prepared for the video to not violate any of the site’s terms, or be deemed in the public’s interest – the video may not be removed if this is the case
- As a last resort, request legal assistance and alert the police as it may fall under the UK’s Malicious Communications Act which now also covers social media
book #5 super recommend this thoughtful and courageous book about wang’s experience with schizoeffective disorder pic.twitter.com/MGNl30gdkC
— michelle ✨ (@michelle_ebooks) April 24, 2019
As we go about our daily routines, we will undoubtedly come across situations we will find interesting or amusing, and it’s quickly becoming almost instinctive for some people to whip out their phone to capture those few seconds or minutes in time.
Perhaps they will share the resulting footage within a WhatsApp group, or via Twitter. But in that moment it’s often easy to forget the impact such an everyday invasion of privacy can have on an individual and their family.
With the offline and online worlds becoming increasingly intertwined, it’s important we all do our very best to consider the living, breathing person on the other side of the lens.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58, and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.