Investigating the effects of social media on mental health

This article is a summary of a publication investigating the effects of social media on mental health.* It is no secret that academic research can lead to mental health issues and there is a serious stigma around mental health, preventing those suffering to speak out. Ultimately, addressing the mental health issue in academia requires communication in the scientific community, this is why I chose to address this topic in our blog.  

Mental health and the internet
Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

What is mental illness and what effect can it have on an individual? 

Mental illnesses, generally speaking, are health conditions that involve changes in thinking, behavior and mood.  These changes have an effect on how individuals function in their everyday lives, and they impede actions ranging from getting out of bed to social interactions. Mental illness has gotten to such an extreme that it is considered the leading cause of disability worldwide. In addition, the social stigma around mental illness can lead to feelings of hopelessness and withdrawal from society. 

The good news is, aside from traditional health care services, face to face interaction between mental health sufferers has been shown to improve recovery, “increase self-esteem” and a sense of belonging

The cyberspace solution: effects of social media on mental health

While face to face peer interaction is helpful, it offers a challenge for those apprehensive about disclosing their disability due to fear of rejection. A solution, as proposed by the publication summarized in this article, is to connect individuals using social media and online communities. The authors propose that unsolicited communication, referred to as “online-peer to-peer support”, offers an opportunity for individuals to improve mental well-being. The authors argue that online peer to peer support is a better alternative because individuals are able to remain anonymous, and choose a level of engagement comfortable to them. Specifically, this article points out that online support can be beneficial in three ways: address the issue of stigma around mental health, offer an educational resources for mental health sufferers, and provide access to helpful online intervention.

Addressing the stigma around mental illness

Individuals are at times reluctant to share their mental health experiences because they feel shame about their illness and fear judgement by society. This prevents mental illness sufferers to seek help. Online peer-to-peer support can aid in de-stigmatizing a person’s illness by reassuring them that others suffer from the same frustrations and challenges.  As a result, mental illness sufferers can gain a sense of relief, and are more inclined to connect with others and share their experiences. For example, individuals suffering from schizophrenia may be embarrassed by their hallucinations, but in an online peer community they may feel less alone in their struggles and learn that hallucinations are a normal part of their mental illness. 

Help with navigating the healthcare system

Online communities also provide mental illness sufferers with insight and advice regarding their healthcare decisions. Information shared on social media and online communities can help mentally ill individuals better navigate the healthcare system.  Specifically, users can learn about healthcare experiences of others, and what to expect during a doctor’s visits. Mental health sufferers can also learn important information about healthcare decisions such as choosing a doctor, and discussing the range of available medications. As a result, knowing what to expect at an appointment with a mental health professional puts them at ease because they feel they are more prepared. Peer-to peer support can help erase anxiety around the complexities of the  healthcare system by offering helpful knowledge and access to experiences of others. 

Access to online Mental health Intervention

The authors argue that a benefit of peer-to-peer support is the ability to access online interventions. While the authors make it clear that few studies have analyzed the effects of online intervention, they argue that they could have positive benefits on one’s mental wellbeing. First, the authors argue that online interventions can be more flexible in terms of personalizing the intervention to a user’s comfort level and preferences.  This flexibility allows the user to be in control and feel more comfortable during the intervention. In addition, online interventions offer mental health practitioners the ability to gain instant feedback, so they can adapt treatment to each individual patient.  

Potential negative effects of social media on mental health

The authors propose two important ways in which online communities can be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of those suffering from mental health issues. The first is the risk of exposure to information shared by individuals of questionable credibility. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to ascertain the credibility of individuals belonging to an online community. A second risk is joining online forums that “support or promote unhealthy behaviors,” such as self harm. These unhealthy online forums can also contain a hostile environment where  hurtful comments are often shared. Such communities can harm rather than help a mental health sufferer.

Key takeaways

In summary, peer-to-peer support on social media and online communities are alternatives that allow a user to understand their mental illness in a welcoming and comfortable environment. These communities can also be a source of helpful knowledge that can ease the burden of the journey through mental health illness.   

Writing article summaries have been a valuable educational experience for me. This particular article made me realize the powerful impact of peer to peer communication for those suffering from mental health issues.   The article also helped me understand the potential of social media and the internet for allowing people to take control of how they communicate about their illness.

* Naslund, J. A., et al. “The future of mental health care: peer-to-peer support and social media.” Epidemiology and psychiatric sciences 25.2 (2016): 113-122.

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