Hayley Millar, Digital Inclusion Trainer
Working as a Digital Inclusion Trainer within the ONSIDE Project I often find that people are quite dismissive of social media as a means of forming connections. They don’t want to communicate through a screen; they want to form “real life” connections in their own communities. To show them just how good social media can be for this, I sometimes share my own story.
I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and anxiety about 15 years ago. It’s not an illness that ever goes away, but with the right medication, care, and support, I have reached a point in my life where I’m living quite happily and ‘managing’ my mental health with self-care. In fact, I’ve learned so much about myself, my brain, and my health, that I haven’t even needed medication for the past few years! (NB – I wouldn’t hesitate to take it again if necessary. Always follow medical advice!)
The internet played a major part in this transformation. Firstly, I took up hobbies that would keep my brain learning and engaged with the world around me. I taught myself watercolour painting techniques using free YouTube videos and found that painting helped me to calm down and focus on the here and now.
Eventually, I decided that I wanted to try to get out there and meet new people after having cut myself off from the world for so long, so I went onto Google and searched for local art classes. When I found one close to me, I searched for it on Facebook, and was able to see photos of the students painting, and the little studio they used, all of which helped calm my fears of the unknown and set my mind at rest about exactly what to expect. I pressed the ‘message’ button, had a chat with the tutor, and suddenly there I was, attending the most relaxing, fun, laid-back art classes every week. I learned so much, and I absolutely loved getting out and chatting with people who shared my interests, in a safe space. It built up my confidence and self-esteem, and I always came away happy and relaxed.
That’s just one example of how I’ve connected through social media.
More recently, I taught myself to swim front crawl by studying YouTube videos demonstrating all the elements of the stroke and practicing them in my local pool. Once I was confidently swimming a kilometer at a time in the safety of the pool, I decided I wanted to try open water swimming – so once more I went on to Facebook, typed “NI open water swimming” into the search box, and was instantly connected to a huge network of swimmers. From there, I was directed to the groups nearest to me, sent a message to ask if I could join one, and for almost a year now I’ve been a regular sunrise swimmer with an amazing, friendly group of people who swim at Antrim Lough Shore! I can’t even describe how much it helps me with both my physical and mental health. I’ve made real-life friends through it and found a hobby that leaves me buzzing with adrenaline and happiness every time.
So, when we talk about forming connections online, we don’t mean strangers sending each other messages. Social media makes it possible to find groups of people with shared interests and hobbies, who get together in real life to learn, play, and have fun. For people like me who struggle to communicate in social situations, it can open up a whole new world. Tap on the Facebook search box, type in the thing you’re interested in, and see what pops up – it might just change your life!