Social media and the mental health paradox

Social media this, social media that. If you’ve been keeping up with this website then you’re probably tired of me going on and on about the damn thing in most (if not all) of my pieces. Truth is, I am obsessed.

You see, I come from the day when dial-up internet made the sound of a robot spazzing out. When I came into the world, my parents didn’t ceremoniously post a photo of me, accompanied by my name and birthdate + time, all in my raw, just-came-into-the-world, soft-pink sleepiness. Hashtags weren’t a thing, and ‘posting’ something had quite a different meaning.

That’s why I’m obsessed. I am in awe at the influence this thing, that isn’t even a physical thing, has on our lives. I’m particularly curious about its relationship with mental health, and what posting about struggles and problems really does for our mental health.

Mental illness is on the rise. Whilst it may be attributed to more people being willing to report mental health issues, experts have pointed out that 21st century is also exacerbating the problem. Social media isn’t good for mental health. It’s bad for body image, makes us more depressed, etc etc, and the more we use it the more damage it does. But is it really all that bad?

Social media has helped us throw open the conversation that we should be having about mental health. A common phrase you might have heard is ‘smart phones and dumb people’. This phrase probably comes from those wake-up-sheeple individuals who think technology is all bad news, but truth is, smartphones and social media are a gateway to a treasure of knowledge. Taboo topics such as mental health are coming to the forefront. We’re talking about how suicide is the biggest killer of men up to the age of 49. We’re facing up to the fact that we’re not taking the mental health of new mothers seriously. More is being done to erase the stigma against mental health in different cultures. And a lot of this is because of the thing that’s supposedly making us so dumb.

It be like that sometimes, amirite?

It be like that sometimes, amirite?

People are flocking to social media to document their illness, or their recovery from it. For people suffering from mental health issues, talking about them isn’t always easy. Instead of turning themselves inside out trying to talk about it in person, people are now putting it into a neat and clear 280 characters. From a mother tweeting about her post-natal depression, and a teenager talking about how Tumblr blogs helped her deal with PTSD, the examples of people using social media for their mental health stretch far and wide. Celebrities are also influencing the conversation, by coming out with their stories and struggles, and by encouraging sufferers to get help, such as YouTube personality Zoella vlogging about her panic attacks. Sufferers have even gone as far to say that social media has helped them manage their condition, with thousands of self-care and wellbeing blogs, accounts, and channels available at the touch of a finger.

However, whilst declaring and talking about mental health problems online is a huge and brave step, unfortunately social media isn’t doing much for encouraging sufferers to get help. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts observed how young people are talking about mental health on social media. They found that although loads of users were talking about the issue by opening up and offering support, there was little conversation about using support services and how to get help in the real world. Even though they shared resources they they thought would help, these resources were often misleading and not trustworthy, appearing in the form of unmoderated blogs and unofficial websites.

The conversation is also being watered down for those who don’t understand the spectrum and depth of the problem, just so they can feebly grasp the concept of what it means to suffer from debilitating mental health issues. ‘The conversation tends to focus on depression and anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. It is less comfortable with the mental illnesses deemed more unpalatable – people who act erratically, hallucinate, have violent episodes or interpersonal instability’, says Guardian journalist, and long-time mental illness sufferer, Hannah Jane Parkinson.

Sometimes, social media also tends to romanticise mental illness. Depression isn’t ‘tragically beautiful’, but you will see it being described as such on Tumblr with a black and white picture of a skinny girl with a flower crown. Vincent Van Gogh had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but that does not mean that mental health problems make you more artsy (he even wished he didn’t have these problems). Panic attacks and anxiety aren’t a laughable matter that make you seem more quirky. Self-harm is not an aesthetic that makes you seem more dainty and delicate. Pro-anorexia blogs should not be a thing. Why is #thinspo even allowed?

Seeing ‘if you have been affected by any of these issues…’ followed by a list of numbers and charities sitting comfortably at the bottom of any post has just become another norm, whether or not people actually use these resources or not. At the end of the day, it is up to the individual whether they want to seek help or not, and social media can only do so much. But it is a twisted paradox. Whilst social media is limited in its means to help improve mental health, it can do so much to harm it. The dialogue which we share about mental health really has the potential to make us feel better, but only if we use it to its full potential to encourage people to get help.