Faced with underfunded mental health services, young people are increasingly turning to the internet for support
If you’ve ever experienced mental illness, it’s likely that at some point you’ve been encouraged to “talk” or “open up” about your issues. But what’s often left out of these conversations about destigmatising mental health is the context in which we should be “opening up” or who exactly we should be “talking” to.
Some would argue that talking about our mental health on the internet is a good place to start. It’s unquestionably easier to condense your feelings into 280 neat little characters and fire a tweet out into the aether than it is to pick up the phone and call your mum or best friend and say “I feel like my body has been replaced with an empty, emotionless husk” out loud. Many have found comfort and solace on social media: even Bella Hadid recently revealed that posting crying selfies on Instagram helped her navigate “excruciating and debilitating mental and physical pain.”
The relationship between social media and mental health is not a novel topic by any means, but Hadid’s admission has sparked new discussions about the subject. I brought it up with a friend – 25-year-old journalist, Sian – who has posted about her mental health online before. “There's that sense of removal on social media; there's a sense of distance because you're not directly talking to individual people in the same way. It’s like the screen acts as a barrier,” she explains. “You feel less like you're burdening people, because you just send the tweet.”
“It’s really important for a lot of people to be able to share how they feel online because maybe they don't actually have other outlets to do that – like maybe they don't have good friends, and therapy is inaccessible for a lot of people,” she adds. “So posting on social media becomes their therapy; it becomes their way to actually feel heard and understood.” This is certainly a large part of the appeal: mental illness can potentially be very isolating, and so posting about it is one way of feeling less alone.
Dr. Ysabel Gerrard is a Lecturer in Digital Media & Society at the University of Sheffield, and an expert on the relationship between social media and mental health. She explains that although social media is often blamed for ‘causing’ mental health problems, it can actually be a much more positive space. “It can enable people to talk about experiences that they might not be able to in their everyday lives,” she explains. “It can really take you out of that lonely, isolated place.” She also notes the humour that often accompanies accounts of poor mental health online: “There's so much sociological research about humour in stressful situations. That's something that has such a long history.”
The humour in sadposting is a thornier issue, as on the internet – especially on spaces like Twitter – it’s often desirable to be seen as miserable, aloof, and self-deprecating. I’ve been guilty of leaning into this, posting my L’s in the name of “authenticity”, retweeting memes about “spicy thoughts”, sharing ironic posts from @afffirmations that say things like “Social anxiety will not stop me” and “Eye contact does not feel intense and weird.” Part of me finds these kinds of memes genuinely funny and I can relate to them, but another of me often wonders if engaging with this sort of content can hold people back and stimy their recovery. It’s no longer funny – or worth engaging with – if you don’t relate to it anymore, after all. I’m also sceptical when big accounts like @afffirmations start selling merch as it creates a financial incentive for their followers to stay depressed, while the merch itself – one T-shirt ironically reads “I’m not plagued by Irrational Anxiety” – seems to frame surmountable mental conditions as all-encompassing identities or quirky personality traits. In some corners of the internet, it seems as though misery has become a means of clout-chasing and a commodity.
“I don’t think anybody wants to rely on Twitter to feel supported. But sometimes, when you’re desperate, you feel like it’s your only option” – Sian
Social media also collapses the boundaries between public and private, and it’s worth keeping this in mind when it comes to posting about mental illness on visible, personal social media accounts. It’s difficult: we’ve been told that being candid about our own struggles can help to destigmatise mental illness, but the fact remains that the stigma surrounding mental illness is unfortunately still alive and well and there’s no way of knowing who will come across your posts once they’re out there. Being vulnerable on the internet can lead to feeling supported, sure, but it would be naïve to gloss over the fact that it can also lead to judgement and abuse. And while online anonymity can help sufferers speak freely about their issues, conversely, it can also enable users to bully, belittle, and ridicule people with no accountability – just look at gossip forums like Tattle Life.
Being forthcoming about your struggles may help others feel less alone and challenge backwards attitudes, but it also risks individualising a problem that is societal. Because if we really want to destigmatise mental illness, we need to achieve parity of esteem in healthcare – and that’s something out of the average person’s control.
Dr. Gerrard also points out that misinformation about mental illness on social media is symptomatic of chronically underfunded health services. “You've got a lot of people who are mental health activists, and I think that that's fantastic, but nobody who is not a licensed professional should be giving people advice on their mental health,” she says. “But at the same time, I feel like that’s quite a naïve perspective to take. Especially when in the UK if you don't have money for private mental health care you're on a waiting list for weeks and weeks and weeks.”
It’s clear that in instances where mental health posts can be dangerous – like in instances where misinformation is allowed to spread or people publicly spiral – the issue isn’t social media itself. Instead, the problem lies in the government’s underfunding of mental health services and failure to deliver on parity of esteem. With this in mind, we should treat anyone posting about their struggles with empathy and kindness, rather than judgement and derision. “I just think we wouldn't have this problem if mental health care in the UK was actually good,” Sian surmises. “I don’t think anybody wants to rely on Twitter to feel supported. But sometimes, when you're desperate, you feel like it’s your only option.”