Richard Lewis: Mental health, Social media & the internet mob

Richard Lewis

[jwplayer Y7PB7YwV]Another week, another tragedy, another young life lost forever that leaves difficult questions alongside their legacy. I didn’t know Byron ‘Reckful’ Bernstein beyond the same way his many fans did. I knew of his struggles with mental health. I knew him to be a good person who was surrounded by friends and family who understood his condition and offered support when needed.

It is heartrending to know he is no longer with us, that he eventually succumbed to his illness in its tragic finality. The resultant widespread outpouring of love and appreciation is a testament to the lives he touched. It makes me sad to think he didn’t get to see it.

His passing has prompted a conversation about mental health and the way in which our digital landscape can impact upon it. The connectivity of the internet, the fact we all have broadcasting tools in our homes, the space to share thoughts and ideas in real-time because of social media… What a time in human history to exist. And of course, it should surprise no-one that we’ve fucked it up and turned it all into a miserable battleground that is now unquestionably starting to have very real harmful repercussions on those who are consistently exposed to it.

So yes, I see those difficult questions and I see the talking points. I also see how fleeting that discussion is and how we all simply go back to this new form of normal within a few days. As I said, I didn’t know Byron. I have no insight into how much any of it all played in his passing. All I know for sure is that it absolutely can’t have helped. Over the past few days I’ve watched clips of him being goaded while he was in tears. I saw how total strangers routinely told him to kill himself every time he tried to speak about his depression and bipolar condition. It happened right up until moments before the fateful day he took his own life. It has left me feeling sick. Sick, but not surprised.

Reckful passed on July 2, 2020. He was 31 years old.

Some have said that the stigma around mental illness is the problem, that because no-one talks about it no-one understands it and therefore no-one knows how to react. Some of those people then said we should try and normalise talking about it and you may have some personalities you know come out and speak of their own battles with various mental health conditions. ‘If enough people do it, then why can’t it be normalised?’

I’ve decried the fakes and the phonies down the years, the people who behave one way when an audience is present and then another when the cameras are off. My God how I envy them. In a time when anything you say about yourself can and will be weaponised against you, what is the point of ever being honest with the general public? The reason talking about mental health can’t be normalised? Take your pick. Your experiences might not align with the prescribed wisdom about the condition you are suffering from so you’ll be attacked for ‘diminishing’ the very illness you suffer from. People in hiring positions say they support you but now in their eyes, you’ve basically said ‘hey, I could become a liability for your business at any given moment’ so you can be certain you’ll see less work. On top of that, you’re going to be mocked by people who think mental illness is a weakness and taunted with whatever triggers it by total strangers. Who would sign up for that?

I’m past the point of caring about how I am perceived. That is a lie. I care. I just know I am past a point of ever being positively able to affect it. I have struggled with clinical depression for years. I did all I could when I was younger to try and rewire myself. Therapy and medication, diet and exercise, relationships and hobbies. When those failed, self-medication, drinking and drugs. It’d phase in and out of my life and it would feel like it was gone sometimes but it would always find a way back. When something bad happened it would take over entirely. I was there the whole time but I couldn’t do much but watch from inside myself. As I got older I stopped fighting it. The illness and me came to a truce. We agreed that I’d get to be vaguely functional most of the time and in exchange it would periodically take over my mind and my life and get to do whatever fucked up shit it wanted before relinquishing control back to me ahead of too much damage being done.

It broke that truce once. I took my eye off it after a run of bad luck. A bad break up, no money, friends around me moving on with their successful lives while I still had holes in my shoes in my late 20s. So I swallowed a bunch of downers and whatever else I could lay my hands on and went into cardiac arrest. The incident was public knowledge but people didn’t know it was a suicide attempt. I checked myself out of hospital after the best part of a week surrounded by geriatrics. They all vocally made their hatred of me known when they could. They’d heard the doctor talk. A young man throwing away their life when they’re at the end and desperate for more time. When I got out the hospital I wrote up a bullshit version of events for my weekly column, made a joke out of it and shrugged off the public messages from people saying that they hoped the next time killed me. Since then we’ve mostly kept up our respective ends of the agreement.

Six months ago my best friend died. She was my family. Through her I got to live a life I never thought I could. It made me a better person. Gone now and that version of me along with her. I’m no stranger to loss. I’ve lost friends to cancer, overdoses, suicide, murder and in combat overseas. It felt like my peers and I were like those turtles you see in nature documentaries, flung into existence and with a small window to make it to the water. And I understand that I am not the brightest nor the best but I made it off the beach. Now mostly I wish I hadn’t.

The first week afterwards, intense, unrelenting nightmares. Their content was always the same. She needed me and I wasn’t there and I had to go join her. Irrational. I don’t believe in an afterlife. Am I wrong? Irrelevant now. I should kill myself anyway. What is there to live for now? There were things to do. I had to handle the arrangements, help family and friends, deal with the media and the tributes. I can die later. After that week, the nightmares went. I haven’t dreamed since.

One problem I found was that there was no place to grieve or try and get better, no practical way to shut down all contact until I had at least purged the survivor’s guilt from my system. You’ll try and distract yourself with anything when you’re in that much mental torment and work requires so much focus it’s usually a go-to choice. Not to mention that you have to slowly wake up to the realisation that your pain and loss isn’t anything special in the grand scheme of things… Your landlord still needs the rent, your boss still needs you to finish that project, your bank still needs you to pay back that loan… Sure, you get a week, maybe a month, where people give you a break. The needs of the world and your needs will never be truly synced up from this point onwards so fuck it, you jump back in when you’re not ready.

I’ve talked before about mental illness and explained how it’s like a computer virus. Once it is in the system the first thing it does is shut down the protections that would be used to fight it. After that it leaves the system vulnerable, compounding the existing problems and making fixing everything seem so implausible that people will eventually start to think you’ll have to format and wipe it all. I understand this because my depression has done this to me many times and what has pulled me out of the desperation has been the love and attention from others. Why do you think the disease makes you push people away?

If your work involves you being in the public eye it’s difficult to hold it together in a way so people don’t notice. Sure, you can record a video. Burst into tears part way through? No problem, do it tomorrow. Too distracted to nail a take… Throw some post-its around the room. Manic episode? Great, use that energy. No-one is going to see you crash and burn afterwards. You only have to show them what you want to.

Or at least that used to be true. The influencer hustle is so much more than that now. Constant plate-spinning of every popular social media platform that’s out there. You have to be ubiquitous. Tweet something when you wake up, check in with your dedicated subreddit for creator content, put out that YouTube video, periscope your lunch, here’s a Tik-Tok of a viral challenge, what’s happening on Discord, then let’s get into that live-stream. All the while you’re watching numbers go up or down, talking to your manager about engagement and which sponsors are lined up. I’m not saying “won’t someone think of the influencers” because compared to doing construction work I think it’s a pretty sweet deal. What I am saying is if the product is YOU and it’s being consumed all the time, how do you hide your illness? How do you not fuck up and let your mask slip?

The answer is you don’t. You are human and flawed and sick and vulnerable. Your illness makes you behave in ways that put you at risk, consistently puts you in the wrong place at the wrong moment. You’re also being watched all the time. The slip is inevitable.

It comes in multiple forms. You might just break down and start crying. While it’s awkward most people will try and comfort someone in distress. You’ll get mocked, especially if you are a guy, but fuck it, that’s nothing compared to the pain you are already in. You might say something shocking. Sometimes the illness can manifest itself in risk-taking behaviour and self-sabotage. Depending on what you’ve said it might just be discussed in a thread or two, or it might be total cancelation and you get cast into the abyss. A temporary relief maybe but now you completely ruined your prospects and everything you worked for, which will cause further misery and depression when you realise what you’ve done to yourself. Maybe you completely lose control and have to deal with the public ridicule of your ‘meltdown’ or ‘freakout,’ those brief moments now being used as the go-to example to explain ‘who you really are.’ People on social media are always utterly convinced that someone’s worst moment is who ‘they really are’ and every other moment was some elaborate act that they struggled to keep up on a moment to moment basis. You are now Freakout Guy Or Meltdown Bitch, a new Kevin or Karen to be held up as an example of everything wrong with human nature.

Maybe you say you are going to kill yourself. What then?

There isn’t a set rule on what people’s motivations are when they express this. Sometimes it is a cry for help. It is saying ‘I need someone to show me compassion and empathy and convince me there is a reason to live.’ Other times, suicidal people can walk themselves to the edge but then realise they need a push to go over. I should also point out, as people with depression already know, saying it out loud can actually be a very calming thought. You are not in control of the chaos outside of your head but you can choose to end it. Sometimes people just need to say ‘I can do this’ to get that sense of control back. Fucked up but true. In the most tragic instances the person saying it has already made up their mind and saying it is simply a goodbye. You won’t know which, if any, of these it is.

Social media has created a unique problem for those experiencing suicidal thoughts. Before it there was no real way to share a suicidal ideation with thousands of strangers. There is a reason why you wouldn’t want to do that. It is one of many elephants in the room that we all squeeze past on a daily basis. There are people out there that want to see if you’ll do it and if they can influence that, they will. It’s the ultimate power-trip for a generation of people raised on reality TV, with its mechanisms that allow you to ‘vote people off,’ and social media giving you levels of access to people’s lives that simply shouldn’t exist. In their eyes you aren’t a person, you have no feelings, you have no life outside of the moments they see. You’re a content-generating hologram. It doesn’t matter to them if you don’t exist but it certainly matters if they have enough influence to help get you there.

I have seen it too many times now to doubt this is what is going on. I watched it with Etika and have been forever changed by that. I watched the internet push and pull a desperately ill and vulnerable person, whose only flaw that I could perceive was being too unwell to help himself, to the point where he felt he had to apologise to them moments before ending his own life. Some were subtle… The people who said ‘he just wants attention. He won’t do it’, for example. Some were explicit… “Do it pussy.” Others made sure to exploit him at his weakest moment for views, for money, making the shame he felt unbearable. As I asked a year ago – Why am I left with the uneasy feeling that I watched the internet crowdsource killing a man for their entertainment?

Etika Instagram post
Etika passed in June 2019, also due to suicide, at 29 years old.

It was a rhetorical question. I know why I felt that way. I felt that way because that’s exactly what happened. A year later and I feel like I just watched it happen again and I know it’s going to keep on happening. It’s just who we are now.

Let’s get back to social media for a moment. Over the years I have written and talked about it extensively. I think I understand each platform and its problems in a way that probably most people don’t think too deeply about. It’s a regular feature on my podcast to talk about how it is my belief that social media is a catalyst for the mental health bomb that is already detonating across the Western world. It is having a two-pronged effect on human behaviour, making people act in ways they simply never would in any other environment while simultaneously rewarding us for laying bare our vulnerabilities for others to exploit. It has reduced us to thinking about other people in terms of usernames, avatars and character counts. It is a window into people’s lives that we are all too happy to throw bricks through.

Out of all social media platforms there is nothing quite like Reddit. What it is very good for is quickly creating a consensus and then encouraging anyone who happens to read a thread to share in it. This goes down to its core mechanics with the karma system, where dissenting opinions only need five more people to disagree with it than agree for that opinion to disappear from the discussion. If a commenter acquires too much “negative karma” their comments will stop appearing at all on the subreddits in which they accrued the downvotes. In popular subs one particularly controversial opinion can see an account you’ve held for years rendered essentially worthless. Studies have shown that the tone of a thread is dictated by the first few comments made within it and that upvotes generally tend to beget more upvotes.

But it’s more than just that. The website has radically shifted its values over the past six years, eschewing the ‘all opinions welcome’ model that made it popular. Now the staff play favourites, allowing some subreddits to break the rules with endorsement and others constantly treading on thin ice for any minor infraction. Recently it was shown that 92 of the top 500 subreddits on the website were run by the same five people and that these moderators would often ban users from all subreddits they controlled over disagreements. The account that made the thread pointing this out was suspended from the site and staff intervened decrying it as harassment. Calling it an echo chamber would be to downplay just how successfully the site forges unified agreement and disagreement about the same subjects in short spaces of time.

In an environment where everyone, clearly, holds the right opinion, there’s a strange psychology that emerges, one where users start to believe that it is upon them to ‘fix’ wrongdoing and to crowdsource meting out punishment to wrongdoers. Sometimes this is something like coming together to boycott a business to force them to change a policy or to use the sheer reach of the site to locate a missing bicycle. “We did it Reddit” was a legitimate self-congratulatory phrase you would see uttered all too often. It is now used mostly ironically because of the sheer breadth of harm Reddit witch-hunts have led to. Whether it’s falsely attributing the Boston Marathon Bombing to an already deceased suicide victim , incorrectly identifying a woman who claimed to be deliberately rejecting male college applications or the classic of doxing someone who posted a meme, causing them to lose their job. It is also a place where users have taken a perverse joy in pushing people over the brink and in to committing suicide in the ways I described earlier.

Crazy then that one of the often-repeated counterarguments you will see aimed at anyone being critical of this mob mindset that is prevalent on Reddit is that ‘we aren’t a hivemind. We are all different people.’ The latter is inarguably true but the reality for the way most subreddits operate is that when people see behaviour they disagree with they do not actively challenge it but rather simply ignore it and go to another thread. Their ‘votes’ and input could easily sway discourse, or perhaps temper reactions. Instead, because of the rewards for agreement that Reddit offers, users choose not to. So yes, you might not have been one of the people handing out flaming torches when the mob started its latest march, granted. By the same token let’s not pretend you were there with buckets of water either. Rather, you watched and reveled from a safe distance to retain that manufactured social standing among the very group that was off to burn down the mill.

And so Reddit entered into the discussion and one subreddit in particular, r/livestreamfail. What used to be a place to post amusing clips of streamers making faux pas has morphed into being the hub to discuss all issues related to streaming. Yes, you will see the occasional clip of someone talented doing something awesome as “a win” and some popular streamers take over the front page with mundane footage because their Discords co-ordinate upvoting. However, what constitutes a ‘fail’ is the biggest problem the subreddit has gone on to have. Mostly now they take the form of either someone saying something the crowd vehemently disagrees with or breaking the terms of service alongside demands for them to be banned. Oh, and let’s not forget how it is a library of almost every embarrassing moment of accidental nudity any streamer has ever had to endure. Want to delete a clip? The subreddit has a bot that automatically creates a mirror of the clip on a platform notoriously slow to respond to DMCAs. Containment is impossible. It’s that way by design. You must be punished.

I’ve had my own experiences with this. I’ve been battling with a relapse of severe depression since my friend died. I’m barely holding it together. My life is a lie. I don’t want it to be that way but I cannot see a path back and in truth there isn’t one. I wanted to be normal again. I rushed myself and went on one of the most popular podcasts on Twitch while I was five or six days deep into a binge of booze and sleep pills. Bloated, red in the face, drunk, slurring, I of course behaved awfully. The most embarrassing clips were posted to that subreddit. I am now Freakout Guy on top of all the other things people say about me. That thread is mostly cleaned up now, but in it were, and probably still are, insults aimed at my deceased friend, assertions that three months was long enough to get over it, and every insult under the sun aimed at me. Worse yet, my words were being used to criticise the host of the podcast, who himself suffers with mental health issues.

I was a mess by the end of that show. I don’t remember it or anything I said on it. I don’t want to. I have vague memories of Slasher and Esfand talking me down and telling me things were going to be OK. Mostly it wasn’t. There was no getting away from the wrath of the livestreamfail audience. I’d been a bad person and so it was only right and fair people came and twisted the knife. You can see for yourself below how that went. These are a handful of the messages I received. Without that thread, chances are most of them wouldn’t have happened. Still, not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, right?

As a journalist and YouTube commentator I understand that discussion of the actions of public figures are absolutely not only part of the territory but also an essential mechanic of how any entertainment industry functions. The problem lies in the moderation and the contextual sensitivity that the mods of that subreddit apply. Naturally, it suffers from all of the aforementioned problems Reddit does as a whole. Why would a moderator of a subreddit not look at a clip of someone accidentally showing a boob and think ‘God, that’s embarrassing for them. I am sure they won’t want this to be shared and highlighted. I will be sure to delete any submissions of that clip.’ It’s just a lack of empathy and consideration. Now apply that same lack of empathy and consideration in how they respond to people who have mental health problems or are going through a bad time. I know of streamers who have these health issues who say they simply cannot get these threads about them removed.

The threads themselves are at least contained. You don’t have to read them. But, because of that Reddit psychology, it doesn’t stay on that subreddit. The users come to Twitch, come to your YouTube comments, come to your DMs, come to your business emails. All of the ways you are connected to the internet are now all pathways for people to attack you and they are doing it because it aligns with the consensus of a popular community who believe you deserve it and that it comes with the territory for being famous.

This cannot continue without more casualties. It’s a callous deflection to say that people who can’t handle this level of hate shouldn’t be in the public eye, or that people who have mental health issues should stay off the internet. The internet is us. It just doesn’t have to be the way it is. No-one was ever meant to be able to cope with thousands of people poking you in the areas where you’re most vulnerable on a daily basis, let alone if you are suffering from mental health problems. It’s not some irrational response. It’s unexplored territory for human psychology.

There’s no way to distill all this down to anything succinct and yet profound. ‘Just be nice to each other’ isn’t it. There’s something rotten about all of it. The relationship between personality and audience, the fairweather friends, the fact that we all became cops angrily holding people to standards we ourselves can’t meet, that strange desire to clench the magnifying glass over the ant we never grew out of… We’ve agreed to suffer in exchange for the ability to make others suffer. This is how we spend our time. Another week, another tragedy, another young life lost forever.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or know anyone that is, and you would like to talk to someone, please reach out and call the Suicide Prevention Helpline 1-800-273-8255 (USA), the Samaritans 116-123 (UK), or Lifeline 13-11-14 (AUS).