“The Vlogging Cure” – Psychology Today

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With millions of viewers following their testimonies, YouTube video creators are challenging the stigma attached to mental illness. What are the benefits and pitfalls of their public confessionals?

Every morning, Martina Stawski wakes up in pain, her every joint, from jaw to knuckles, screaming its complaint. There is no cure for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, the chronic connective tissue disorder she lives with, and at 33, she is starting to have trouble walking. Fans of Martina’s YouTube channel, “Simon and Martina,” know that her condition is as much a part of her as her trademark enthusiasm, pink hair, and Wolverine sleeve tattoo. But while Ehlers-Danlos has been a recurring topic on her nine-year-old channel, it wasn’t until February that she decided to tell her 1.1 million subscribers about the other condition she’s been living with—chronic depression.

“I was really, really scared to put out this video because I was embarrassed to begin with. I felt shameful about it because it’s totally not talked about,” Stawski says. “But depression is not a choice you make, and I think this video will probably help out and reach a lot of people who have been doing what I was doing and not telling their family and friends.”

Stawski isn’t the only popular YouTube video creator (or “vlogger”) to post candid testimonials about personal experiences with mental illness and treatments. Thousands have used the platform to discuss depression, OCD, trichotillomania, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, severe social anxiety, and more. Some include their confessionals among other video offerings in which they sing, perform sketches, cook, shop, or chat about different topics. Others have launched second channels dedicated to providing their own brand of education and information about how they deal with their condition, perhaps most famously Beckie Brown, whose time-lapse video, “She Takes a Photo: 6.5 Years,” details the highs and lows of her struggles with trichotillomania through daily photos. The video has been viewed more than 15 million times and is widely credited with showing the world what a person who experiences compulsive hair pulling and skin picking endures.

YouTube is the web’s second-most-visited site, behind only Google (with which it shares a corporate parent, Alphabet). It has evolved from a bare-bones video archiving site to a social space where people can make a living posting high-quality, innovative content—in some cases, a very good living. But while anyone can upload a video, gaining a large following is not easy. Without agents, studios, or a Hollywood promotion machine to support them, individual creators must rely on their distinct personality, perspective, or subject to set them apart from the enormous pack. It’s this authenticity that has turned some of these people into stars.But mental illness is more challenging to put onscreen than pranks, celebrity commentary, fashion tips, or crafty how-tos. It comes with  a level of vulnerability as well: What if viewers don’t believe creators’ claims of depression or, worse, attack them through their comments for not being grateful enough for their relative health or success?When the videos work, though, “suddenly mental illness is not this abstract idea,” says clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis, who is interested in the intersection of psychology and media. “Face-to-face is the way evolution has shaped us to interact with one another; it’s how we know one another and how we build empathy for one another.”

On YouTube, individuals generate “face-to-face” connection through the screen. “It provides a space for people to have a more empathetic experience with those who are suffering,” Michaelis says. “People who are in the middle of a crisis can be connected with little effort.”

For months, Stawski and her husband debated whether she should upload her depression video. They ultimately decided that it was in her and her fans’ best interest to show a realistic portrait of the condition. “I think people hear the word and expect somebody to be wearing gothic clothing and sitting in a basement. To get a message from someone who says she’s a totally active person, super outgoing with all her friends, and that she still struggles with depression, with no understanding of how to explain it—I hope my video will show people they’re a lot like me,” she says.

The typical format of a YouTube video, with a speaker sitting close to and looking directly at the camera, creates an air of intimacy for raw and candid disclosure.  In “An Open Talk About My Depression,” Stawski told viewers: “I want to show you what I do to help myself on these really, really low days….I don’t want to paint an inaccurate or unattainable way of living with chronic pain or depression….what I want to do today is open up to you guys and talk to you very honestly.”

Speaking about her efforts to live with her condition, she explained that tiny steps propelled improvement. “And with each accomplishment and with each goal and each tiny adventure, I slowly started to add rungs to this ladder. And I started to see meaning in life again.” After going on the internet to start learning to knit, she said, “then the next thing I do is go out to actually get thread, and that’s a big step. And then from there I start to join forums and look things up online and then the next thing I know, I’m going to a cafe and I’m meeting real people and having conversations with them, and all these little tiny goals were just taking me out a little further away from this total pit of complete hopelessness.”

The World’s Biggest Network

People around the world view more than 1 billion hours of YouTube videos per day—more than any major television network or streaming service can deliver. Millennials view an average of 12.1 hours of YouTube videos per week. This potentially massive audience gives popular creators a real opportunity to engage peer-to-peer with fans about previously taboo topics.

After filmmaker Anna Akana lost her younger sister to suicide, she began using her channel to speak out about mental illness, becoming one of the first highly followed vloggers to address her own depression publicly. In a 2013 video, “Please Don’t Kill Yourself,” she said, “I’ve been pretty open about the fact that my sister committed suicide in 2007, and I’ve been getting a lot of questions from people, like,  ‘I want to kill myself. What should I do?’ If you commit suicide, I don’t even know, I don’t even know what would happen to you. All I really know is what happens to the people around you after you die.”

This article was originally published on Psychology Today and in the print edition.

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