Mad in Asia’s editorial intern, Momina Masood, talks to Noor ul Huda Niazi, an administrator of a WhatsApp self-help group, about the possibilities and problems posed by the online world in creating communities. The article is written by Momina based on emails and texts exchanged between them.
In writing about digital spaces functioning as care communities, I have asked myself how I navigate the online world and what my own virtual support groups mean to me. For a considerable number of online users, going digital with one’s suffering largely comes from finding the ‘real’ world inadequate or overwhelming. And for small-town Pakistanis for whom achieving care in the real world becomes an unlikely proposition largely due to the scarcity of mental health and caregiving spaces in general, the online world presents itself as an unlikely sanctuary.
The WhatsApp group, ‘The Family’, run by students of Allama Iqbal Medical College (AIMC), Lahore, has functioned as one such sanctuary for the past year and a half.
“It’s not what it used to be”, says Noor, a young medical student who is one of the administrators of this group. “It is just a dead, silent space, offering only the archives of support and care once exchanged between users.”
For those behind this support group, the mission was to create a space where users were listened to without judgment and were given the opportunity to vent anonymously. Seeking care for mental distress being taboo as it is, the anonymity provided by online spaces is one of the reasons why users sign up and find it comfortable to be vulnerable. The group administrators would usually provide advice or a listening ear, but there were no clear distinctions between carers and other users. However, initially, the group admins did take it upon themselves to share less of their own lives and listen more to those who joined seeking a friend or sometimes just someone to listen.
“The experience of influencing and being close to the lives you’ve never actually known, and the number of people in the medical world experiencing depression, was both surprising and intimidating,” Noor says. “And not all of it stemmed from the strenuous job hours or hectic academic routines. There were some horrible cases of child rape, overdosing, and engaging in forms of self-harm as coping mechanisms because of so many years of agony, but several victims of such abuse would remain silent because of family honor or due to other fears. There were victims of brutal domestic abuse, bullying and molestation.”
Noor writes in an email about ‘The Family’: “Initially, we thought that coming out would be the hardest first step for our neurodivergent friends, getting them to express themselves might be a hurdle. But I was totally taken aback by the overwhelming amount of activity in the group. Their desperation to be heard and the consideration given to everyone was tremendously assuring. Somebody would text at any hour of distress, even if it was three in the morning and we would suddenly have some of us listening to them and talking to them, helping them fall asleep, to brave through that one night. There were innumerable potential incidences of suicide that were prevented by the simple acts of catharsis and attention. There were lots of young human lives, alive and breathing, who were trapped in dysfunctional families, abusive relationships, and the rest of us, depressed and drifting. There was no talk of diagnosis, no talk of prescriptions and medications. We had among ourselves newly-graduated doctors and students training to be psychiatrists and yet there was never any word of pills and clinics. We simply listened and shared love. Some of us were artists and would share our artwork with each other, finding relief and therapy through a paintbrush. The group was becoming a huge success, or so I thought then, and soon more people had joined in, and we were now a closely-knit bunch of around 60.”
So, what happened? I am forced to ask. There are several support groups on Facebook, groups that are specifically created and meant for Pakistani youth, some still active, some with barely any activity. So, what eventually happens to these spaces? Why won’t they endure, I ask Noor. What happened to her own online group?
“Regardless of the fact that online spaces provide a sense of comfort and security and help users open up, they are still cold, impersonal spaces. No digital space can become an alternative for a one-on-one conversation, and gradually this is what we observed happening to our own space. It was no longer an intimate space as more people joined in. It became harder to reach out to people in time, and there were many users who slipped in with whom we couldn’t really connect. We were just there to listen and provide comfort. And many of the admins had been fighting their own battles silently. There was a period of inactivity and during this time some new members had joined in, some of whom were judgmental and rude.”
Eventually, the group started feeling less than supportive, and the administrators were forced to step in and take action against members on occasion when there was instigation to inflict harm. Over time, many of the users left the group, and the group, in turn, became barely active.
But it was not long after that Noor found herself witnessing the birth of another support group. Noor’s account tells us that digital support networks can be formed in unlikely places, even in fan groups, and as one space withers and dies, another takes its place:
“A few months later though, I came to know of another digital space, working through the same platform of WhatsApp called ‘Amino’. Basically, it originated as a Pakistani fan club of BTS, a K-pop band. But the members soon discovered how some of them were struggling through depression mostly because of academic pressure. Amino has now been functional for almost a year and its users have found a family in each other.”
It’s hard to say for certain if these digital spaces can function effectively and indefinitely as alternative care communities. Located outside of mainstream mental health narratives, digital spaces have endless potential to offer healing. Young caregivers find unlikely companionships and families in these anonymous forums, and although it is debatable how safe these spaces eventually turn out to be, these alternative care communities have reimagined the ways we can talk about caregiving and healing in our collective digital present.