Virtual Dog: A Virtual Friend for Life
Posted by PurpleMoonbeam
21st Sep 2012

I am new to SANE, having only recently turned to online resources in an effort to find something that might help me cope with the deep distress I was experiencing. I read about Virtual Dog and was delighted at how the campaign is using technology to connect people with mental health issues. I have been a technology geek for many years, so this is close to my heart.

In this, our second decade of the 21st Century, we can be forgiven for thinking that the cutting-edge technology of the digital revolution is unique to us in the here and now. But in reality, the wider ‘Information Age,’ that has allowed ordinary people to access and share information freely across the internet, has actually spanned more than 20 years. Since the early 90’s when the World Wide Web became more readily accessible to the masses, we have been talking, sharing, collaborating, and befriending people in far-flung parts of the world, using a variety of online communication tools.

In the mid-90s we were wowed by the ability to hold instant two-way conversation with someone anywhere else in the world. Instant messaging quickly led to the birth of live chat rooms for likeminded people to hangout. Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) had been around for a long time, but grew considerably in popularity around this time. These BBS or message boards were predominantly used by technology geeks such as myself, who were keen to share our ideas with other geeks around the world. All these tools were early forms of what we call ‘online communities’.

Today, the once exciting instant messaging is shadowed by the giants of social networking such as Twitter and Facebook, and now we have forums that rose from the ashes of the once popular bulletin boards. We can post in a forum, on Twitter or a Facebook page and instantly be sharing our prose with people all around the world. We are all familiar with the term ‘social networking’ and what it means to us, but there is an unsung hero that has gently tiptoed its way through the digital revolution, growing in strength and popularity along the way, and that is dedicated ‘Online Communities’ hosted through forums or social media.

An online community is a collection of people brought together by common membership. These like-minded people can talk, share, collaborate, and support each other in a moderated virtual space. People from any diverse background and corner of the globe can unite in an online community and form very strong bonds with each other. This type of support can be invaluable to people suffering from mental health issues.

The Black Dog Campaign is a great example of such an online community. The forum unites people who are suffering from a variety of mental health issues, as well as the carers or relatives of those who are suffering. A real community spirit arises from the kindness and support that members offer to each other. The experiences, advice and information that people share could be described as ‘crowd wisdom’: this is where the collective wisdom of the community members is as smart as the information coming from expert sources.

Mental health issues and mental illnesses affect people in many different ways, but a common experience we may have is when we are at our lowest and feel trapped in our own homes or too unwell to go out and have social experiences. This is where the Black Dog Community can have its biggest impact on us. Being able to join the community with the protection of anonymity and participate in discussions or start posts is liberating for me. I can express thoughts and feelings that I would otherwise not be able to say to people. This online community can empower its members to have a voice that might never be spoken or never be heard in the real world. I have found this online social experience and befriending of people from all walks of life to be very comforting and supportive.

Through asking questions and sharing my experiences with members I have discovered that “it’s not just me” and “I’m not the only one out there suffering in this way”. Other people are just like me, experiencing the same horrors and feeling the same pain. To discover our shared experiences and express camaraderie in a virtual space brings about a feeling of connectedness. This is a real lifeline.

We don’t need to be isolated in the real world though; we can be a Black Dog community member at any stage of illness or recovery and through our posts and discussions, we can turn our negative experiences into something positive that may help others. The community is also a great place for a carer or relative to learn about the illness their loved one may be suffering from. It is also a safe place for anyone to ask questions about mental health issues.

The Black Dog Campaign harnesses the energy of the digital revolution and channels it into a safe, friendly and supportive virtual space, where real people can share real experiences with confidence, as well as benefit from the pearls of wisdom that community members can offer each other. SANE’s new Virtual Dog “is a poignant symbol for anyone who has ever turned online in times of distress…… Virtual Dog also represents all the wonderful material that people create: blogs, twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Forums and any type of online expression”. Being part of this community and contributing online could really help you too, and maybe Virtual Dog could become your virtual friend for life.

There is one thing that I have omitted until now, and that is what I am doing right now – blogging. The act of blogging is much like writing a journal, only you are sharing your topical musings with readers who are interested in your subject matter. I have found my recent entry into the blogging world to be very therapeutic and it helps me get some sense out of my jumbled, racing mind and on to paper.

When speaking to doctors, friends, or family about mental health issues, I can become tongue-tied by my jumbled thoughts. This can make conversing very hard and even embarrassing for me. Writing however, enables me to eloquently articulate what I want to say in a way that can be more understanding and meaningful for the people I want to talk to. I have found the blogs I have written for SANE have helped me feel like I am giving something useful to the community, as well as talking directly in written word to doctors, friends, and family about my mental health challenges.

The spirit of online communities has been around throughout the Information Age, but today we have faster internet speeds, smartphones and tablet devices that enable us to connect instantly to the Black Dog community, wherever we are at any given time. Never before has an online community been closer and more accessible to us. I feel a great sense of connectedness knowing I am carrying Virtual Dog around in my pocket.

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