Recognizing Good Depression Support Resources Online
I think one of the best things to come out of the Internet is online support websites founded by and/or run by regular people. I started my depression site, Wing of Madness, over eleven years ago with no qualifications other than my own experience with depression and a desire to educate other people about it in the hopes that they would seek treatment. Since then, my site has helped thousands upon thousands of visitors (much to my surprise and immense gratification).
Many other “regular people” have created sites about all aspects of mental health since then, and many of them are very good. One thing that these sites can be very effective at is creating a community for people who suffer from the same disorder or set of disorders. It's nice to know you're not alone, especially when your problem is something you're loathe to talk about with someone face-to-face.
But (not to sound overly dramatic) there is a dark side to mental health web sites created by laypeople. The fact that anyone can put together a web site for very little money, sometimes for free, is in many ways a good thing. Non-professionals don't have to put their websites through a vetting process, and that can be a good thing too. But unfortunately, this lack of restrictions can also be a very bad thing in the wrong hands.
One of the most egregious uses of the Internet in terms of mental health sites, to my mind, is the crop of sites that actually encourage eating disorders (usually referring to themselves as “pro-ana.” While there are several good websites that encourage recovery from eating disorders (Something Fishy is the oldest and best known of these), there are even more that actually discourage recovery from eating disorders. Hard to believe, isn't it? The web site administrators contend that anorexia and bulimia are not disorders but a lifestyle choice, and that it's possible to control the behavior.
The sites generally offer tips on losing weight and purging, often through message boards and blogs. They display pictures of skeletal or obese women as “thinspiration.” Visitors and site administrators refer to themselves and the movement as “pro-Ana” (pro-anorexia) or “pro-Mia” (pro-bulimia) and tell each other, “I love you to the bones.” They even have bracelets to celebrate the pro-ana and pro-mia lifestyle.
Let me pause for a minute and note that there are some “pro-ana” sites whose maintainers do not promote eating disorders. They use the term to refers to themselves because they have not yet recovered from their eating disorder(s). I'm not sure why they eschew the term “pro-recovery,” but perhaps an understanding of the semantics is beyond someone who has not had an eating disorder.
These sites provide the same thing that other mental health support sites do: acceptance and understanding. But the thrust of most mental health support groups is recovery, or living in as health a manner as possible. These pro-ED (eating disorder) sites are the concept of a support group perverted by people who don't want to be alone on what they unconsciously realize is a dangerous path.
And yes, I do know that the real enemy is very likely the thin ideal that the media and advertising industry promote. But although binge drinking is probably caused to a great extent by the same factors, you don't see a lot of web sites promoting it. That would be considered irresponsible.
If you're tempted to dismiss these sites as juvenile gabfests that couldn't do any damage, don't. A small pilot study published in 2006 showed that women and girls who viewed pro-ana sites experienced a drop in self-esteem and mood and saw an increase in their feelings of being overweight.
If you are concerned about a child accessing these sites, buy blocking software if you don't already have it. Learn how to use it and how to search the browser history to find pro-eating disorder sites. Do not allow the child to use a computer in his/her room. Computers should be moved into a common room that will allow you to see over the child's shoulder. Yes, implementing these measures puts you in the role of a cop, but chances are that if this child has an eating disorder, you're already in that role.
Or better yet, steer him or her toward Something Fishy, which provides community and support that's geared toward recovery, not toward perpetuating self-destructive thinking.
I can't pretend to understand how the mind of someone with an eating disorder works, since I never had one. I'm sure that there's a lot I'm missing. But to me, pro-ana and pro-mia sites are a violation of the trust that people in need put in the hands of everyone who puts up a support website. Like depression, anorexia is a potentially fatal illness, so the cost of the site maintainers promoting their idea of eating disorders as a lifestyle might be someone else's life.
WWW.Warning – Negative Internet Sites
Study confirms negative impact of pro-anorexia sites
British Charity issues anorexia Internet warning