Social media has a rocky history when it comes to mental health, and the general consensus would suggest that the former is predominantly detrimental to the latter. But is this changing?
Society as a whole has become more aware of mental health issues in the recent past; the topic has moved from a taboo subject towards the centre of public discourse. In so-called polite society, bound by strict social conventions, a person’s mental health was always expected to be kept well hidden until breaking point was reached and they were deemed in need of professional help. But in the digital age where people can broadcast to large networks at the click of a button, how has this change manifested itself?
The negative element
The comedian Juliette Burton, who has been affected by body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety, said to the BBC that in her experience “social media is a hindrance when it all feels very fake and competitive. It’s very rare to see people posting about dark stuff. When they do it’s a massive cry for help.”
Social media is commonly a breeding ground for animosity towards those deemed different; one only needs to glance quickly at the comments section of an article advocating veganism to glean how the best of intentions can garner the worst of reactions. There are also many cases in which social media has exacerbated mental illness through peer-led affirmation, for example pro-anorexia groups on Facebook in which users are congratulated on unhealthy weight loss. But social media can also be a place where people affected by mental health issues can be comfortable expressing themselves without fear of judgement.
The positive element
Though people such as Jessica Winter believe that Instagram (“where the trend for beautiful, filtered selfies and picture-perfect lifestyles reaches a whole other level”) is one of the worst offenders, others have had different experiences. Creatives often take to networks such as Instagram to share abstract images, drawings and deep thoughts in a way that is received and appreciated in a much more accepting light than on other channels. Though there can still be animosity and disagreement on Instagram, creative expression for those suffering from mental health problems is a useful form of communication. And for those who want to communicate intangible thoughts and feelings, a friendlier online climate leads to a more helpful discussion.
Netherlands-based artist Laura Brouwers (a.k.a. Cyarin) is no stranger to the trials and rewards of social media. With her 874,000 Instagram followers, Laura uses her medium to express herself in a constructive and beautiful way. Rather than using her channels solely for idealised, self-promoting purposes, she communicates with her audience by sharing her problems and receiving their support. Her post pictured below and its accompanying caption encapsulates this perfectly:
Laura is a prime example of an artist who uses social media to help break down the taboos of mental health, stress and anxiety. She is honest in her use of social media and her fans appreciate it.
Another positive example can be found in the young Canadian Anna Pearson’s ‘Daily Insanity Blog’, whose website states ‘[a]t the age of 20 years old, Anna was diagnosed with clinical depression, generalised anxiety disorder and orthorexia.’ However, rather than shy away from her diagnoses and attempt to cope alone, Anna took to social media as an advocate for mental wellness, embodying her tagline ‘[l]et’s get vulnerable’. Posting across Instagram and Twitter Anna provides honest portrayals of living life with mental health issues, encouraging others to do the same and offering a feeling of inclusion and openness for those in need of it. And with support initiatives such as Mental Health Mates being born on and spread across social media and prominent young influencers such as Sammy Nickalls (who started a viral #TalkingAboutIt hashtag on Twitter) encouraging this healthy and open online conversation, there are many other success stories that can be found.
A recent example of social media being used to generate positive impacts upon users’ mental wellbeing can be found in the #ItsOkayToTalk campaign, created by the professional rugby player Luke Ambler. Luke’s brother-in-law, Andy Roberts, sadly and suddenly took his own life, leaving behind a child and widespread sadness. The campaign, which received resounding support across all social channels, involved men posting photos of themselves doing the ‘OK’ hand gesture along with some a text containing some shocking facts about the prevalence of male suicide. The campaign looks to break down the stigmas surrounding mental health, especially those relating to reductive ideals of masculinity, which can make men feel unable to expose something as personal and vulnerable as a mental health issue. Although hard facts surrounding the success of a campaign such as this are impossible to obtain, they certainly encourage open and supportive conversations around these complex issues.
Although there are still too many examples of how it can have the opposite effect, people that use social media to communicate informative and balanced portrayals of mental illness are standard bearers for how social media can be used in a constructive way in relation to mental health. Instagram recently added a button to flag content people deem worrying (i.e. indicative of a mental instability), and Facebook also offers a similar service. There are more and more examples of the proactive attitude and action needed to tackle this complex and ever changing landscape, and as an increasing number of people begin to discuss their own experiences online, the more accepting and informed the general conversation around these issues become.
Have you had experiences with any of the issues discussed in this article? If you have, and would like to share your story, then please drop us a line.