Timber Talbot knows what it feels like to be too tired to eat, too anxious to make a phone call, too bogged down by an ever-growing task list to even do the simple stuff. As someone who has endured their own mental health challenges their entire life, Talbot understood, firsthand, the debilitating feeling of inaction.
“I can’t move. I need to clean my room. I need to brush my teeth or I need to do the dishes,” Talbot said. “That feeling can just be so, so crippling… It’s overwhelming.”
After discovering their friends were also having a hard time getting through simple, everyday tasks due to feelings of fatigue, depression, or ADHD, Talbot started Extra Spoons, a Facebook group where anyone could post a simple administrative task they didn’t have the capacity to do themselves — from scheduling doctor’s appointments to drafting short emails — and anyone else could help them do it, often responding within minutes. In just a few months their mutual aid group with about a dozen members transformed into a space where more than 4,000 people come together every day to help each other get stuff done.
Online communities focused on mental health that offer mutual aid, which is when people help each other cooperatively without compensation, fill in the gaps for those who fall outside of immediate crisis intervention but who need more than just affirming words. The growing popularity of these groups, most of which focus on emotional support rather than tasks, come as Americans experience an expanding mental health crisis driven by COVID, racism, political turmoil, and the economy. Mutual aid isn’t a new concept, but social media posts about it have been flourishing since last year.
As much as COVID has created a greater need for these groups, it’s also provided a community of helpers. “There are so many people who are confined to their home or out of work, working from computers and off of their cellphones, who have the time to help and just need something to do. I call it the anxiety override,” Talbot said.
The name Extra Spoons was inspired by the of chronic illness, which posits that individuals have a set amount (spoonfuls) of energy for each day and once those are used, it becomes impossible to do much else. Spoonfuls change day by day, person to person — you may refill your spoons much faster than others or consistently have extras to offer. Since coined the phrase years ago, it’s since been used by others to describe general fatigue and burnout in addition to the limitations of a chronic illness. Talbot’s group is a kind of spoon-sharing collective.
“The point of this is accessibility. People that are overwhelmed and can’t get out of bed and can’t pick up the phone don’t need to jump through a hundred hoops to get a caseworker,” Talbot said.
Extra Spoons helps people with executive dysfunction, which refers to the inability to form or retain memories, regulate emotions and motivation, plan, or multitask. Executive dysfunction , according to research and support group . People with certain mental health conditions like ADHD, anxiety, or depression can have extreme executive dysfunction, explains Lisa Joy Tuttle, executive skill coach and director of coaching and group programs at the Penn Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at University of Pennsylvania.
Extra Spoons also aids those with (a general term for the lack of motivation and frustration caused by COVID) and others struggling to balance work and life amid the pandemic.
All of these groups may experience some sort of “,” a phrase coined by writer and mental health advocate to describe the overwhelming feeling of a task you keep putting off and just can’t seem to complete. Talbot encourages individuals to share spoons with each other in order to accomplish these seemingly impossible tasks.
“There are other executive dysfunction support groups and ADHD support groups and depression support groups. I made [Extra Spoons] because there weren’t ones that were specifically for helping people complete tasks,” Talbot explained. At the beginning, a friend would post when they needed added motivation with a task and someone would respond to help get it done. By the end of 2020, it had grown marginally — from the initial dozen to about 100 people. Most users were seeking help with their ADHD or executive dysfunction. There was a post or two a week, if that.
But in March 2021, Talbot posted a to their TikTok account. Talbot responded to another creator, , who filmed themselves anxiously crying while scheduling a haircut appointment — the TikTok was a benign and very relatable joke, but Talbot saw a moment to offer help to those who genuinely feel incapacitated completing phone calls.
“You could see the anxiety and her freaking out… I’ve struggled with my mental health my entire life, like forever. So, I said, ‘OK, if you need help, I can help you. Here’s this group and that’s all it’s for: If you need help making a phone call, here you go.’”
The video blew up with 108,000 views and 26,000 likes and led to even more Extra Spoons members.
The group has three admins who monitor more than 100 posts a day on average. Once it seems like a task is complete or has moved to private messages, which is the case once someone in need links up with a helper, admins turn off the post’s comment section. Admins also try to follow up with each post.
Talbot says that so far every request has been met with a response, and that there’s about an equal amount of volunteers to those asking for help. Extra Spoons even has a (much smaller) sister group, .
Additionally, the group has a shared spreadsheet where members can post their contact information, availability, and services like phone calls, meal-planning, or other skills. I joined the group, listing my availability and willingness to support people who want help with writing or editing (I’ve only been needed once so far).
Posts seeking legal, financial, or tax advice, are not allowed and will be removed. Administrators also ask that people refrain from asking for general advice.
“We want it to be a tangible task,” Talbot explained. “When people come asking for advice, we can sort of guide people towards the appropriate forums or channels that they need for a support group, so they can get the emotional support that they need as well. But that’s just not really our goal. Our goal is to help people perform a task that they need.”
Separately, co-working groups have sprouted up over the past year to address the difficulties of finding motivation while working from home. Tuttle runs one such group through Zoom, called “Mindful Co-Working,” three times a week to engage in an ADHD practice known as “body doubling.” That’s when you use the physical presence of another person to help keep you accountable to a task. The group sets a “first small step” each session, like sending an email or scheduling a phone call, and Tuttle or the other members check in periodically. Talbot’s group essentially connects people who can’t seem to achieve that “first small step” with someone who can.
Tuttle sees these mental health mutual aid networks as integral to our transition back into a post-pandemic world.
There are other free online resources for those who want to vent. Some may not call themselves mutual aid groups, but they have similar goals. One such group is , which connects Reddit users for phone calls to share advice, provide emotional support, and offer help. But the subreddit is careful to note in its rules that medical advice is forbidden, and it shouldn’t be considered a replacement for a trained therapist. People who volunteer their time to listen aren’t required to complete any training. Meanwhile, the mental health websites 7 cups or Crisis Text Line, which aren’t mutual aid groups due to their organizational structure but offer similar peer support, train volunteers who provide free virtual chat services for those needing someone to talk to.
April Foreman, a psychologist and executive board member of the suicide prevention organization American Association of Suicidology, says all of these forms of online aid can be effective. While more research is needed, studies have shown that online peer support groups like those on Reddit can improve people’s mental health, and that strangers can provide just as much mental health support as close family or friends.
“It is very rare that one kind of therapy or one kind of approach outperforms another,” Foreman explains. “Sometimes it happens, but it’s actually very rare, because it turns out that just being engaged with people and with some sort of structure is what helps.”
Foreman compares groups like Extra Spoons with therapy that tackles a source of stress through problem-solving skills. Emotional support communities, meanwhile, offer a venue for people to be listened to and validated. There are benefits to both, but individuals will have to find what works best for them.
The people within an online peer support group are the most important aspect, Foreman says. Set processes and training may keep these spaces efficient, but individual experiences between group members, inclusive language, and establishing boundaries often matter more.
“We know that if you’re in a group where people are generally really supportive, they help each other cope. They encourage things like going to treatment and talking with your doctor, talking about the medication that works for them, helping each other hang in there. Those people who participate in these healthier groups seem to get more well over time,” Foreman explains.
Peer support groups also de-stigmatize the so-called “inability to adult,” Tuttle says, a notion that’s boosted shame and fear. Anxiety, depression, or pandemic fatigue makes one unmotivated to complete tasks, and then the incomplete tasks create stress that amplifies anxiety and depression. This cycle is part of a common myth that one’s worth is defined by one’s productivity and success.
“Your lack is pulling from my abundance. I can give to you from my overflow.”
“We’re all sort of in a machine, working our roles. Everybody in some way is dependent upon the other parts of the machine,” Tuttle describes. When we feel like we aren’t keeping up with the rest of the machine, we can get discouraged, amplifying mental health issues. But “we’re not machines.”
Finding support to combat this feeling of inadequacy is “not about being a nicer, shinier machine, or productivity for the sake of productivity,” Tuttle says. It’s about creating more time to have a fulfilling, enjoyable life. Beyond the practical benefits of mutual aid groups like Extra Spoons, the communities and conversations born in these spaces have the potential to break down this productivity myth, Tuttle says.
“If I’m feeling shame because of my executive functioning challenges, then that’s getting in the way of my relationships. It’s definitely not going to let me express my potential for what I’m here to do in the world… I think it takes a lot of courage to be able to ask for help.”
Talbot is excited about the momentum behind Extra Spoons, and what the future holds. They dream of transitioning from a Facebook group to a nonprofit or an app-based system that connects folks who need an extra hand with those willing to give.
“It’s very clear that there is a need… I would gladly quit my day job, get on the phone and do this for 40 hours, 60 hours a week and help people this way because it’s very fulfilling. You talk to the person, and it’s instant help,” they said. Talbot already works in the medical field, setting up appointments, coordinating medical referrals, and walking people through the confusing logistics of the country’s insurance system. Their scheduling experience was part of the inspiration for Extra Spoons.
Formalizing into a nonprofit isn’t the only path for online mutual aid networks, however. They can still thrive without the nonprofit structure and keep a sense of non-hierarchical community. Shared experiences (or shared differences from what is considered the norm, like neurodivergence, queerness, or physical disability) among peers can be a powerful force, says Tuttle.
“When you share something in common with someone, you might feel even more of an affinity or a sense of safety with them. Whether it’s a diagnosis or a certain struggle…something happens at this level of horizontal identity where people feel free to be very transparent,” Tuttle explains.
Task-based groups like her co-working group and Extra Spoons offer common ground, a safe space, and, most importantly, reciprocity.
“Your lack is pulling from my abundance. I can give to you from my overflow,” Tuttle says. “There’s something pretty amazing about that level of human community. ‘I don’t even know who you are and, already, we got you.’”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. ET, or email . You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is .