Universities are grappling with a mental health crisis that is not disconnected from digital developments (Degges-White and Borzumato-Gainey 239). Acknowledging mental health in digital communities can lead to greater potential for healthy activism. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health studied the change in the mental health of college students over the last decade. The average need and enrollment in counseling services on campuses grew at least five times faster than the average enrollment in colleges (Locke 3). In 2010, 23.8% of students seriously considered attempting suicide; in 2015, the percentage was up to 32.9% (Locke 5). Bell, Barclay, and Stoltz show that 30% of college students have admitted to having depression; the Association for University and College Counseling Directors states that “41% of all college students who visit counseling centers struggle with anxiety” (Degges-White and Borzumato-Gainey 220, 237). Of course, these statistics do not account for the many cases that go undeclared and unrecognized.
Students, especially first-year college students, have grown up learning to tread the ever-blurring line between what is private and public. In publics online, many students have internalized and contributed to the rules that dictate the level of emotional sharing that is acceptable and expected. Emotional sharing and epistemologically writing for a public to figure out emotion can often lead to the student revealing too much about mental health. This writing, or abstinence from writing because of the uncomfortable broadcast, can contribute to a student’s depression or anxiety rather than helping abate it. The feelings of anxiety and depression are perhaps heightened by the ability to broadcast thoughts, the opportunity for comparison, and the easy access to triggers found on social media. Even for the student who is not directly facing diagnosed mental health challenges, the transition to college naturally encourages students to ask questions and analyze their own lives, beliefs, and personalities (Sommers and Saltz 125). And through it all, digital communities are vital. Students use social media to form and navigate relationships and to create deeper intimacy with peers. Digital activism has also made mental health challenges less taboo and more widely understood (Berry, Natalie et al. 107).
Rhetorical training can help students understand and process emotion in a healthy way using digital technologies. As social media users better understand the community effects of mental health online, subtle strides towards digital activism aware of a blurred public and private sphere creates greater potential in digital communities.
Grabill, in an edutopia article from 2012, argued that writing instruction is more important for students of this generation because writing is so pervasive through technologies. The digital platforms of writing are the most frequently used genres for writing. In Pigg’s “Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces,” questions about the student experience in a networked world are introduced. She powerfully examines the focus on the screens of mobile technologies that make it easy to forget the connections the technologies have to concrete realities (Pigg 252). Arguing that composing is an embodied experience, Pigg offers a background for locating writing processes within the networked technologies culture (252). Pigg cites new media theorist Sherry Turkle’s term “a fully tethered life” to describe students who are connected, at all times, to people and information (253).
I would add that students are also connected at all times to emotions and the emotional experiences triggered by people and information. Students writing within the background of networked devices must locate their learning and emotions in physical spaces and on screens (Pigg 253). The power of writing in an age of social media means that students are enabled “to think out loud and be immediately heard by others” (McNely 4). Because social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter especially) are about production and consumption, social media use has been shown to be epistemologically productive. Writing is epistemological in that we write in order to think, to understand what we think and feel, and to create meaning. Where there is the creation of meaning, there is also the necessary creation and understanding of emotion.
Being part of a community of individuals who encounter similar emotional struggles creates more opportunities for positive, life-giving practices. Understanding expressed emotion is a key element in understanding and organizing social systems (Weingarten and Berger 41), especially social systems devoted to community building and digital activism.The powerful potential for community found online can contribute to wide-scale strides in social justice while also creating individual senses of belonging and offering places for rhetorically healthy, activist writing. These tools, though small among an importantly large repertoire, can positively contribute to withstanding mental health challenges that are confronted digitally and in physical spaces. In the digital communities, seeing the underlying emotion and confusion of blurred lines between private and public spheres helps people respond with greater awareness and sympathy. This, I have to believe, creates better communities.
As I teach first-year composition, I incorporate conversations about the ramifications of emotional expression within the places where students lives are “tethered.” In an ethnography project, students learn how to negotiate the blurred line and are equipped to better build lasting community and awareness of the appropriate and life-building responses for productive emotional sharing. By locating activist writing to arguing about a specific location, students have personal connections to their writing topics without being connected only by emotion. By creating a potential social media post and interrogating their caption process, students see their own rhetorical process in a new light. Our physical “privately public sphere” of a composition classroom allows us to think about the emotional responses to broad issues of social justice within digital “privately public spheres.” Healthy strides towards social justice are enabled.
I don’t intend to simplify a mental health crisis. I find my own thoughts and activism passions often directed towards the pressures students face. My undergraduate background in psychology teaches me that these are not simple issues solved by a few conversations about digital activism, social justice, and emotional sharing in a first-year English course. But I also know that small steps matter and digital community building that leads to social justice must be aware of the powerful, rhetorical writing that operates in publics that are made to feel private.
Berry, Natalie et al. “#Whywetweetmh: Understanding Why People Use Twitter to Discuss Mental Health Problems.” Journal Of Medical Internet Research, vol. 19, no. 4, 2017, pp. e107-e107, mnh, doi:10.2196/jmir.6173.
Degges-White, Suzanne and Christine Borzumato-Gainey. College Student Mental Health Counseling : A Developmental Approach. New York, NY : Springer Publishing Company, LLC, , 2014.
Grabill, Jeff. “Is the Cell Phone the New Pencil?” 2012, https://www.edutopia.org/blog/is-cell-phone-new-pencil-jeff-grabill.
Grabill, Jeffrey T., and Stacey Pigg. “Messy Rhetoric: Identity Performance as Rhetorical Agency in Online Public Forums.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 2, 2012, pp. 99-119.
Locke, Ben. “Center for Collegiate Mental Health (Ccmh): 2015 Annual Report.” Penn State, 2015, pp. 1-40.
McNely, Brian J. . “Sociotechnical Notemaking: Short-Form to Long-Form Writing Practices.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 1, no. 2, http://www.presenttensejournal.org/volume-2/sociotechnical-notemaking-short-form-to-long-form-writing-practices/#return8.
Pigg, Stacey “Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces.” CCC, vol. 66, no. 2, 2014, pp. 250-275, http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CCC/0662-dec2014/CCC0662Emplacing.pdf.
Sommers, Nancy and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 1, 2004, pp. 124-149, doi:10.2307/4140684.
Weingarten, Evan and Jonah Berger. “Emotional Sharing in Social Networks: Its Stability within and Impact on Sharers.” Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 42, 2014.