Sinead O’Connor’s Facebook posts remind us breakdowns are not a spectator sport

In the wake of Sinead O'Connor's Facebook post, how do we avoid becoming crass spectators?

One of my guilty pleasures is browsing through those awful ‘Year 9 Banter’ Twitter feeds. They’re accounts aimed at teenagers, largely populated by Vines of people falling over and trite, catch-all statements that are so universal that they’re rendered almost meaningless. But the other day, secretly and feverishly browsing such a feed, I saw a tweet that I thought was kind of interesting. It said “Nobody says ‘brb’ anymore because we’re never away from our devices.”

Don’t get me wrong – it’s trite. But I don’t think it’s much of an overstatement to say that the Internet, and increasingly omnipresent smartphones, have irrevocably changed the way we communicate. I’m not a Luddite; I think it’s a good thing. The only thing I found annoying about the Oxford Dictionary’s recent selection of the cry-laughing emoji as their word of the year was that it’s blatantly the worst emoji.

I don’t need to explain how the way we talk to each other has changed; it’s self-evident. But I don’t think that means we’re always evolving in the right direction – you only have to look at reactions to Sinead O’Connor’s public breakdown to see that.

I don’t know what Sinead’s diagnosis is, nor do I think it’s particularly relevant. But what we do know is that she’s experienced mental health problems in the past, attempting suicide at least once. And this seems to have bubbled over again last week in a breakdown she recorded in detail on her Facebook page. Her updates were rambling and long, nonsensical in places; she was clearly distressed.

Reactions to the breakdown were mixed to say the least. Comments on the status ranged from jokes (“Will it take 7 hours and 15 days to find her body?” one particularly hilarious man wrote) to sympathy – but the overwhelming sense from reading the comments was one of voyeurism. And I appreciate that by writing an article about it myself I’m adding to this noise, but I think it’s important to look at public expressions of poor mental health and think about why we react the way we do.

There’s no ‘right’ way to react to a breakdown, particularly one that happens in public. It can be awkward, sure – what do you say to someone who’s suicidal, or psychotic, someone who’s hallucinating or whose grip on reality seems to be looser and looser every day? – but it’s important to not stand back and treat it like a spectacle. The conversation around Tila Tequila was the same – this kind of weird, rubbernecking reaction that resembled a response to something far more trivial.

Mental illness by its very nature is often absurd – a friend of mine, manic, once bought thousands of pounds’ worth of precious gems and gold bullion, thinking he could sell it on for a huge profit. I once hallucinated a small talking dog in the lift of the building I live in. These are ridiculous things to think – absolutely surreal. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously. And the same goes for famous people, too.

The celebrity element adds another layer of complexity; we’re so used to treating these people’s lives as a spectacle that their mental health becomes part of the show. But celebrity or not, having a public breakdown is often mortifying. Things I said and did during my worst psychotic episode always pop up on Timehop this time of year, and it’s horrible. Reading the comments is worse. Voyeurism was the order of the day – taking me seriously certainly wasn’t.

What I do know is that some of the people who responded so badly to my online breakdown are actually deeply empathetic people who in some cases have their own struggles too. It goes to show the way that our online behaviour warps the way we would normally react.

There’s no real take-home message from watching Sinead O’Connor’s breakdown unfold; on my part, I just hope she gets the help she so clearly needs. All I would say – to friends, family, or just to random rubbernecking onlookers browsing their feed for something to say – is maybe, when confronted with distress, to think before you post. Or even better, say something positive.

Main image: iStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz