Mental Health Advocates and Trolls

Internet Troll Versus Mental Health Advocates

This post is a response to a twitter thread from Sunday, March 17th.  Many people of good intentions showed tremendous patience in the face of a person who exclusively responded with hate and abuse.  No matter how much love was sent his way, he returned with vitriol.  I will not mention or quote his comments or detail what might have triggered his behavior; in part because I don’t want gossip, profanity, or hate to be associated with this blog.  

In addition, while there may be compelling reasons for his behavior (perhaps mental health struggles), there are no justifications.   Explanations for behavior don’t necessarily excuse it.  Personally, his actions infuriated me and many others at the time, which was likely his main objective.  However, in retrospect, I found the responses of those who joined the thread, including me, to be more compelling.  This post is more about us, mental health advocates, than about one trolling individual. 

Reactions of Mental Health Advocates

The reactions of those involved fell into three categories.  First, there were those who ignored the chaos all together, and to you, I say “bravo.”  Second, there were those who blocked the individual after expressing gently that his comments were inappropriate or offensive.  Third, many mental health advocates attempted to reach out to the person multiple times to inquire if he needed assistance.  They asked him to send a DR (direct message) if he desired help.  Everyone who participated in the feud with this individual showed tremendous restraint.  But eventually, he burned every bridge that was laid before him.  This post doesn’t explore why everyone eventually blocked him; but rather, why it took so long.

For the people in the third category; those who stuck around to reach the individual, there was some debate about whether we were treating the man fairly or with the appropriate level of sympathy.  Some suggested that blocking the individual was akin to turning away from a person in need of help.  Everyone, rightly or wrongly, openly acknowledged and assumed that this person was struggling. 

The Comparison Game

At moments, the conversation was beginning to border on a competition among the selfless; with competitors vying to see who could be the most patient and reasonable mental health advocate; all while accepting the hateful abuse of the person they were trying to help.  It wasn’t explicit by any means; more like a dash of salt in a recipe with many layers and ingredients; yet still there underneath the surface.   

I slowly began to notice the unfolding of a mini comparison game among all these caring, patient, and selfless people.  The parameters of the game hinted that the level of verbal abuse one could absorb correlated to the degree one cared for the abusive person; and through association people in general.  In participating in this game, we perhaps unwittingly equate emotional generosity to the sacrifice of our own wellness. 

Mental Health Advocates Absorbing Abuse

As people who care about mental health, we are under no obligation to accept verbal and emotional abuse.  This seems obvious, but sometimes we sacrifice our own mental health under the veil and misconception that accepting another person’s vitriol is an unfortunate, but sometimes required, part of the equation. We excuse a person’s behavior; saying it is a reflection of their own struggles and suffering.

While this may almost certainly be true and explains their hostility, it doesn’t justify or excuse it. We can be selfless and loving while also protecting ourselves from hateful speech.  Turning away does not mean we are selfish.  It doesn’t mean we are blind to the person’s humanity.  In fact, by accepting the incoming fire of verbal abuse, we have lost sight of the line where emotional generosity meets sacrificing our own wellness; contradicting the importance of the selfcare we all espouse.   

Self-Esteem and Ego

We sometimes forget this in the face of our egos becoming tied too closely to the perception that we are loving and caring people.  Therefore, when our self-esteem becomes closely connected to helping, we can fall prey to avoiding any action that might be perceived or imply otherwise.  Consequently, in this situation, many of us didn’t turn away immediately from the hateful speech.  We accepted the unacceptable; perhaps believing that turning away would diminish our reputations as emotionally generous people.

Motivations

On the surface, we could argue that engaging this person was a recognition of our shared humanity with him; that he was an individual worthy of love and kindness like any other.  While certainly reasonable and true, I find this conclusion to be a bit simple.  After all, no one knew the individual, and I find it hard to accept that we were solely motivated for his benefit.  While every person is worthy of love, kindness, and compassion, I don’t believe this admirable mindset was fully awake within us at the time of this twitter interaction.  However, even if it’s true that some were genuinely responding out of love for our fellow man, I would argue that we were also motivated by our egos and how we wish to be perceived.

While this is perhaps a less romantic view of the self, I am more interested in finding greater degrees of truth and reality, than protecting the ego with illusory conclusions.  The recognized motivations that we attribute to our actions often have a hidden shadow; which interests me as a matter of truth, even if it paints a less romantic image of the self.  In other words, perhaps many of us believed we responded selflessly to provide love to a person in need, without recognizing the possibility that our behavior was motivated beyond the obvious and convenient explanation. 

Conclusions

This is not to suggest that mental health advocates should berate themselves for lack of purity.  On the contrary, I hope that recognizing our multitude of motivations will lead to better mental health choices.  For example, if we recognized that our desire to help is partially fueled by the ego and a desire to be perceived as selfless, we might be more likely to detach from abusive scenarios in favor of our own needs.  In other words, if we deglamorize our motivations and observe them as partially derived from how we wish to be viewed, we may be less likely to play the hero who sacrifices our own mental health.