Overcoming stigma when blogging about health and illness.
I recently gave a keynote presentation at Diabetes Linkup, a conference for Type 2 Diabetes bloggers, on the topic of overcoming stigma to connect with peers online. I was sharing lessons learned from the past four years of sharing about my brain. Whether it’s diabetes or mental illness, the challenges we run into online and the ways we can overcome them are very similar. Here are the five lessons I shared:
By far, the thing that I find in every successful blogger I meet is a purpose. And it’s a consequential purpose. They want to make a difference, they want to create a change in the world to support others. That purpose is evident in every post they make. Each post becomes a step towards fulfilling that purpose.
The purpose of everything I do online and in my professional work, in general, is to help the largest number of people possible access supports for improving and maintaining their mental health. Having that purpose is useful because it helps me make decisions about what I do in my work, how I do it, where I do it, and what tasks or topics need to be my top priorities. A clear purpose makes the day-to-day work easier while ensuring it’s impactful over the long-term.
If I was blogging only for my own interests, I’d create the best craft-beer-football-cartoon-japanese-punk-rock-meditation-weightlifting-travel-breakfast blog ever! But sharing about all of those different things would appeal to a very tiny segment of the public and it wouldn’t help me move towards my purpose in a meaningful way. So when Matt, Daniela, Andrew, and I were launching the Everybody has a Brain blog on Tumblr, we did a bunch of design thinking exercises to understand our audience and who we needed to reach to spread the information, tools, and supports we wanted to make more accessible. Going through those exercises to understand the audience helped focus how and what we would post. We knew what our audience liked and disliked, we knew how they wanted to interact and where they wanted to do it. So there were no excuses to go on a platform our audience didn’t use and then to blog about things in a way that wouldn’t connect with them.
If you’re struggling to get started with blogging about health, let your audience guide you to how they want to connect with the ideas you have to share. If they want to engage with health through video, then make videos! Maybe you don’t like being on camera or you don’t think you’re good at it. Tough. If that’s what’ll help you fulfill your purpose, you’d better get practicing on those videos.
Engaging people online happens there’s overlap between your values, your purpose, and your audience’s values.
Your values tell you the best ways to do the things that will fulfill on your purpose. They can be very simple. I usually suggesting have three. Base them on the work you did to understand your audience and the best way to connect with them to reach your purpose. With EHAB, for instance, with each post, even with something short like a tweet or an Instagram post, I try to do three things:
- Make it personal.
- Make it about maintaining and improving mental health.
- Connect people with resources.
As long as I try to do those three things in as many posts as possible, I can be confident things will keep moving in the direction I want them to move. These values also help me when I’m talking about difficult topics that I might be anxious to talk about. I have to make it personal because that’s what I value. That’s what’s going to help other people. I can accept the uncertainties popping up in my head and stick to my values. I’m also going to focus on maintaining and improving mental health, so it’s not only about a problem. It’s about where I’m going–an approach that I think is so important to any health blogging because I’m building support and an audience around my goals, not my problems.
Learning how to focus on what you give instead of what you get is a technique I talk about often when I’m doing peer support work to help people cut out compulsions, but it’s also a fantastic way to keep your health blogging focused on what will actually make a difference and build engagement. Instead of tracking likes or views or followers, track a metric that you control completely, that reflects how you can deliver on your purpose. The natural side-effect of that will be more viewers, readers, etc, but you get there by keeping the focus on what you give them.
With EHAB, I only track how often I post. If I share stories and resources about improving and maintaining great mental health, then I was successful. As long as I do that while considering the overlap between my values, my purpose, and my audience’s values, I know I’ll deliver the results I want to see over the long-term. If I were to start focusing on what I want to get from my audience, then I would end up trying to control them, engaging in lots of checking and manipulating compulsions, and I’d put likes and reblogs in charge of my emotions. That doesn’t sound very appealing to me.
This approach can help with overcoming stigma or fears about blogging because it doesn’t matter how everybody reacts to your work. If you’re sticking to your values and you’re creating things that your specific target audience want, that’s what matters. If your target audience doesn’t like what you’re creating, then revisit your understanding of what they need.
Stigma is a squirrel. You run at it shouting.
Stigma about an illness is no different than any other type of prejudice–racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry. Nobody changed any of those things by sitting around quietly hoping somebody else would change them. We also don’t change them by trying to get rid of them before making important systemic changes. The systemic changes come first. That’s about creating the changes you want to see around a particular issue in a very concrete, tangible way. Marriage equality, equal pay, voting rights–these are concrete changes. They don’t come after the prejudice is completely eradicated. They come before. The same will be true with any stigma, real or imagined, that you will experience around health issues. You don’t get rid of the stigma first. You make the changes that you want to see. Then you might see that stigma shift. Or not. And you just keep running at it and shouting.