Story: Aaron Harvey
Social media is criticized daily, but it brought hope to one trapped in mental illness.
The internet—social media in particular—has become an unfortunate scapegoat for our global mental health crisis. Undoubtedly, some of the criticism is valid. Nonprofits, advocacy groups, and governmental organizations are releasing mounting evidence showing the effects of social media on the increase in depression and anxiety among youthful users. Our daily news reminds us of the life-shattering horrors of cyberbullying. The National Health Service correlates social media use with the rise in self-harm and self-poisoning among teens.
While we’re generations away from understanding the real cost of our always-on culture, the internet also has become a life-saving platform for those in mental health crisis, which is where my story begins.
As a youngster, I began having intrusive thoughts about pedophilia and incest. I have distinct memories of the thoughts and images my brain forced on me, and the constant echo of “you’re a pedophile” running through my mind. Horrified, I spent the next 20 years compulsively trying to ensure I would not harm a child. To protect the people I loved, I avoided being alone with children. To ensure I couldn’t cause future harm, I did not have a family of my own out of fear I would hurt them or spawn a psychopath like myself. The breadth of my intrusive thoughts rapidly expanded to include hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of daily flashing images of self-harm, suicide, violence, mass homicides, and beyond. These preoccupations even consumed my dreams, leaving me to wake in sweat, tears, and tremors.
Despite the severity of my situation, I told no one. And I mean no one. I lived in a silent, social isolation for 20-plus years. Turning to friends, family, and health-care professionals was not in consideration. It was a risk I wasn’t willing to take. I would lose the love of my life. I would bring shame upon my family. I would be investigated for a crime I didn’t commit. I would no longer be able to adopt a child. I would lose my job. Turning to the internet was also not an option. It was admission that I had a problem beyond my control. But when my self-harm and suicidal ideation peaked, I felt I had no choice. I googled “violent thoughts,” and within a few clicks, I found a community of people who shared my life experience across YouTube, psych forums, Facebook groups, and articles. For the first time in my life, I felt understood. I was transformed.
In the years following, it was the internet that led me out of the dark hole in which I’d found myself. It opened up a world of understanding and support I didn’t know existed. In summary, it helped me heal in three key ways:
As a result of social stigma, I suffered silently for more than 20 years. In the real world, I lacked access to the conversation and community that might have transformed me. But online, I had immediate access to stories from around the world. I found them on YouTube, message forums, Facebook groups, and major editorial outlets. From them, I learned I am not a bad person—my thoughts are just thoughts. Some people, like myself, have an anxiety disorder that results in debilitating compulsions. I had a path forward thanks to today’s informed and empowered youth. After years of membership in these online communities, I cannot stress enough how lifesaving they are. Without them, many sufferers would succumb to suicide, addiction, or a life of isolation.
Finding community is just the beginning. From there, it’s critical to get informed about your condition. Sadly, societal stigma still runs high, as does misdiagnosis. Uninformed practitioners and loved ones often lead sufferers down the wrong path to treatment. You must function as your own advocate, and take research into your own hands. There is a growing world of blogs, vlogs, forums, articles, and organizations publishing valuable information and providing access to reliable health-care professionals. Use them. Education empowers the confidence to come forward and seek help.
Getting proper help for psychological disorders is not the same as getting help for physical ones. You must understand the specific differences between types of psychologists and types of therapy. For myself, it was about learning I needed a clinical psychologist with proven experience in therapy for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and exposure and response prevention (ERP). If I worked with a talk therapist, it might do more harm than good—a common misunderstanding among those who are new to OCD. By using websites, like Psychology Today, with verified professional directories and extensive information on medication, I was able to find what I needed. However, access to care in most communities is limited. That’s where emerging digital tools like mindfulness applications (Headspace), treatment applications (nOCD), chat therapy platforms (BetterHelp), and hotlines (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) are transforming how people get help.
Despite the breadth of help I found online, I also recognized a noticeable gap in inclusive platforms. One site might be packed with medical information, but was dense and off-putting for those with little mental health knowledge. Another might showcase interesting articles but offer no tangible steps forward. Learning from my experience, I took the three pillars above and worked with a team of designers, writers, developers, and videographers to create intrusivethoughts.org, an empowering platform that allows OCD and intrusive thoughts sufferers to connect with a community, learn about their condition, develop healthy coping skills, and get on a proper path to treatment…all in one place.
As we’ve expanded and grown in other channels, like our Facebook support group and OCD3 YouTube series, one thing has become clear: progress isn’t linear. We all move at our own speeds on our own paths. The onus is on digital platforms, and digitally based organizations like our own, to cater to this truth. We’re always learning, always connecting, always getting better. The internet’s ongoing role in helping sufferers lead healthier lives is dependent on its ability to offer services and support for people at every stage of their journey, and on every kind of channel.
About the author
Aaron Harvey, founder of IntrusiveThoughts.org, suffers from various mental illnesses, including pure OCD, and shares how the internet helped him in his journey to better health.