A small Facebook group made to connect fans of Bristol punk band Idles has grown into a huge support network for thousands of people.
Over the past three years, “AF Gang” has grown to more than 27,000 members and become a judgement-free community where members can talk openly about their problems.
If somebody posts about their struggles with their mental health or a difficult family situation, they can find dozens of members commenting to support them and offer advice.
Jonathan Murray, from Liverpool, said the group practically saved his life.
“I’ve struggled with my mental health for years,” he said.
“I’ve tried counselling and I’m on medication but I still feel like I’m on my own and I’ve got no one to talk to.
“Rather than speaking down to me, it’s like we were one big group. They tell you to just go with the flow and let it happen.
“The band’s music and lyrics made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Through the group I met people going through the exact same.”
Idles formed in 2009. Their second album, Joy as an Act of Resistance, was released in 2018 as a rallying call for unity, covering topics including toxic masculinity and racism.
The admins of the Facebook group adopted the name AF Gang because the band used to have a drum kit that had “IDLES AF” written on the front of it.
Bass player Adam Devonshire called the AF Gang group “a wonderful thing”.
“It’s started to open up a discussion and allow people to open up and show that it’s OK to talk about your problems,” he said.
“It kind of overwhelms me with how much of an effect it’s had on people.
“A very large number of young males are told and conditioned not to open up and not to discuss things and there’s a high suicide rate because of it.
“I hope it can be replicated in other places. It seems to have been a very positive change for a lot of people in the group.”
Members said they still talked about the band in the group but it also offered a lifeline when they were struggling.
Meghan Hehir, from Kent, said she was able to open up to the group after the sudden death of a close friend, in a way she could not with her boyfriend or family.
“I’d just got back from the funeral,” she said. “I hadn’t spoken to anyone about how I was feeling.
“For some reason I turned to a bunch of mad, brilliant strangers on the internet and opened up properly about my pain and what I was going through.
“I didn’t expect people to flock to it in the way that they did and offer such compassion and care to a complete stranger.
“If I hadn’t have found them I would be considerably less happy woman than what I am now.”
AF Gang admin Lindsay Melbourne said some members were “doing better” in lockdown, but others came to the group for support, especially if they were isolating by themselves.
Lydia Grace runs the online harms programme for suicide prevention charity Samaritans.
“We know a lot of online peer support communities have seen an significant increase in users and it’s so encouraging to see that people are going online to seek support but it’s important you’re going to platforms that are helpful and safe,” she said.
“We’re spending so much more time online. In some cases that can be great, but sometimes it can feel overwhelming.
“Our advice would be to just take a break if things are feeling overwhelming.”
You can hear from the AF Gang and Idles in Unusual Times, available on BBC Sounds.