It’s great to be there for someone who needs to talk through their problems. But taking on too much responsibility for others can bring its own issues. Sometimes you just have to take a step back

There was a time when reading the problem page in a magazine seemed like the easiest way to get informal advice on sensitive subjects such as mental health. But nowadays, people look for a more immediate response to their concerns. Instead of penning a letter and sending it off by snail mail, Time to Change, the mental health movement, reports that 47% of people aged 21 and under find it easiest to talk about their mental health problems online.

With influencers like Zoe Sugg and Estée Lalonde sharing about their mental health publicly, a lively community of mental health bloggers and Instagrammers has emerged online. But if you find yourself in a position where people are regularly asking you for help and advice, how should you respond?

There’s a bit of debate around the subject, but one thing is clear – healthy boundaries are essential. Here’s how to create boundaries to protect yourself and others.

1. Define your purpose

Whether you’re a registered health professional or a keen mental health advocate, it’s worth evaluating what you initially set out to do online. If you’re helping others as part of your job, then make sure you’re only online during working hours, and if you’re doing it as a hobby, ask yourself if helping others is always your responsibility.

Clinical psychologist and Counselling Directory member Dr Carolyne Keenan points out: “Whether it’s online or in real life, sometimes you can become quite invested in other people’s problems, because it’s a really good distraction from your own.”

2. Think about your basic needs

phone with a variety of apps on screen

Constant stimulation and information overload can trigger emotional distress. Tune in to your own needs, and think about how supporting others online is affecting your wellbeing.

Are you taking your phone to bed when you should be winding down? Are you waking in the night to check messages? Maybe you’re preoccupied with your phone during meals?

Dr Emma Svanberg, a clinical psychologist, explains that a “surefire warning sign is when you’d rather look at social media than connect with people around you”.

Make a rule that you won’t use social media when you should be spending time with family and friends. Try using the Do Not Disturb setting to turn off all notifications except important calls.

3. Respond in your own time, and signpost accordingly

Even trained medical professionals aren’t expected to be on call 24/7, so it’s important we acknowledge that just because we can be contactable at all times, doesn’t mean we should be.

If you’ll be required to offer emotional support every time you log on, you need to limit that to a reasonable amount of time every day.

A good way to ensure this is to assign set times when you respond. It can be easy to feel obliged to answer every query as soon as it appears, but this will drain your time and energy.

Dr Keenan says that setting realistic expectations about your capacity to offer support is key. She advises: “Just be honest about your human relationship with the platform, that you’re not going to be there 24/7, but that there are lots of services that are.”

Make a habit of guiding people to helplines, such as Samaritans, Mind or SANE. If you’re using Instagram, create a post with useful numbers and save it to your highlights reel so that people can find help from trained professionals.

4. Serve yourself first

Think about how supporting others through their mental illness makes you feel. For many of us it can actually improve our mood, but if it’s starting to make you feel anxious, tired or depressed, then you may need to take a step back.

Before you log on, think: “Have I served myself first?” If the answer is no, then consider a tried and tested activity that gives you energy – such as yoga, a nap, or a shower. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, turn off all notifications and take some time away from social media.

5. Red flags that mean you need to step away from helping others online

• Scrolling has become an automatic compulsion.
• You feel anxious whenever you log on to social media.
• You feel a sense of ‘obligation’ to be online 24/7.
• You feel unqualified to answer the questions you’re being asked.