Mental illness and social media

When it comes to mental health, social media can be a positive space in the fight for awareness, but it also has dangerous pitfalls you should know about. 

Social media can be a positive space in the fight for mental health awareness and can provide a supportive community to sufferers, but it can also be unforgiving and destructive to your mental health. The negative emotional impacts of too much time online are well documented, but less so are the merits of social media in this space:

  • It opens the mental health conversation and engages the general population:social media isa powerful tool in bringing positive change to mental health stigma, according to Adriana Bobinchock, in her article ‘Mental Illness and Social Media’ for Mayo Clinic.
  • It provides positive social connectivity for those with mental illnesses:Jayne Hardy, founder of The Blurt Foundation which offers support to those with depression, shares on the website that her depression rendered her unable to leave her house. She explains that the connections she made through social media made her feel less isolated.
  • It makes people aware of the symptoms of poor mental health:it helps people identify depression and seek help early.
  • It can help detect depression in users: a2017 study at the University of Vermont has revealed that social media can be used to help diagnose depression using an algorithm that looks at someone’s frequency and type of posts (as well as the colour and content of their photos). Although this is still in the proof-of-concept phase, Shouqat Mugjenker, the Mental Health Portfolio Manager of Pharma Dynamics, sees this auto-detection of depression as a promising tool, considering South Africa faces a shortage of mental health professionals. 

But although social media has been heralded as bringing greater connectivity to our lives in many different ways, it does bring with it some dangers as well, warns Richard Parry, a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist. He explains that:

  • It can make us dependent on external validation.

On social media, we often feel pressured to portray the best possible, idealised version of ourselves, and then we wait for it to be validated – the measure of this being how many ‘likes’ we get from our audience. Anxiety levels rise as our sense of how we are doing and how we are feeling becomes based on this validation from our ‘friends’, and spending too much time stuck in this loop can negatively impact our self-esteem.

  • It can create conflict.

Because social media is ‘tone deaf’, in that it struggles to convey subtlety and nuance, misunderstandings and conflicts can arise and snowball into the real world.

  • It can scar us.

Social media never forgets those drunken postings or poorly judged comments. Because these digital records never go away, they can haunt you for a long time, evoking pain and feelings of shame that can be hard to move on from.

As with many things in life, the trick is to maintain a healthy balance. It’s about joining the dialogue through positive interactions but having an awareness of how social media can threaten your mental health. As Richard says, know when ‘to put down your phone, and connect with your friends the old-fashioned way: face to face’.


Media release – Issued by Meropa Communications on behalf of Pharma Dynamics: Social Media Campaign Launched to Promote Mental Health in Mzansi: 2nd Oct 2018.

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