By Shabrina Ashraf & Aasna Devani
Social media has played a crucial role in shedding light on a wide variety of social issues; including mental health. There has been an indisputable increase in the volume of survivor stories, social media handles advocating for mental well-being and influencers stepping up to actively voice allyship toward mental health. We resort to the virtual world for a host of reasons including the ease of accessibility to information, financial difficulties in affording appropriate mental health care and the simple fact that we’re already spending a lot of our free time browsing through social media so there’s a sense of familiarity and comfort with the platform.
Additionally, with respect to information seeking, the principle of least effort postulates that the information seeker chooses a course of action that will involve the most convenient search method for information seeking. The user will apply the searching tools that are most familiar and easy to use so as to find results. This happens despite of the user having proficiency in technical searching. This leads to access to more condensed forms of information as opposed to nuanced and in depth information often leading to generalization and stereotyping of what mental illness looks like. Not to forget, the mediums of dissemination of mental health advocacy also extends beyond social media, to include music, movies/shows that are now rapidly produced and streamed with ease on OTT platforms.
The availability of such copious information, although beneficial at times, can bring with itself a host of challenges and potential consequences. The discord here is largely around the portrayal of Mental Illnesses and the concept or process of therapy. Like everything else, we have tv shows and movies that are well informed and do their part in accurately portraying what mental illnesses look like along with those that are ill informed and contribute to the stigmatization of mental illnesses. For example shows including : This is Us, One Day at a Time, Flowers, It’s Ok Not to be Ok and Modern Love do a good job at portraying mental illnesses as accurately as possible. Whilst shows like 13 Reasons Why have garnered contrasting opinions from experts on their portrayal of mental illness.
Some social media handles may share limited and, unvetted information and advisory on mental health illnesses / issues, thereby unintentionally promoting a detrimental self-diagnosis culture. Some subjects just cannot be DIY. It’s important to be aware of the counter-productive impact, limited or misinformed content can have on an individual’s well-being. Therefore, it is imperative for content creators to take an accountable and informed lens whilst ideating content and be aware of how it informs mass perception.
So, why is it important to exercise caution when engaging with mental health related content online?
Most mental health related content, as found online, dictates what needs to be done and notably omits the ‘,means to achieve this end’. Similar to how Google provides a range full of information on an ailment, say, the information alone is incapable of offering relief. Another point to note is that social media is a platform accessible to everyone while therapy is individualistic and tailored to the specific context of the individual in therapy. It also becomes incredibly difficult for one to monitor their progress when they don’t have a mental health professional diligently taking notes and forming treatment plans to monitor the well-being of their client. Having the information and being able to apply the same information are two entirely different things. The impact the application has is incomparable to simply having the knowledge.
Mental Health is a scientific and nuanced field of work, which is why very simplistic and deterministic statements can limit you from understanding the concept and lead you to adopting it incorrectly. With technology skyrocketing at the pace of a Tesla, none of us are spared in letting the internet manipulate our naivety. As a thumb rule, information or knowledge beyond one’s expertise should be consumed with a pinch of salt. We must adopt filters and most importantly, consult an expert.
It can create a template of what good mental health should look like without providing opportunities for questioning; which is integral for self awareness and insight regarding deeply ‘personal’ expressions of life experiences and emotions – We do not have the same life experience and therefore our emotional responses cannot be dealt with in the same way as another person’s.
Self-diagnosing can also be careless and a dangerous exercise to engage in; It is not just insensitive but inaccurate to a large extent as well. One often ends up trivializing or magnifying a symptom. When self-diagnosing, the gravity of a “diagnosed mental illness” and the individual’s lived experience is being exploited and lost under the diagnosis of a lay person; It further leads to scientific inaccuracy as the symptoms of a mental illness isn’t as apparent or simple to comprehend to an inexpert (like the symptoms of a flu) Let’s also keep in mind one’s biases and the anxious mode the brain leans toward during an amateur diagnosing process. Hence, an objective, professional and an unbiased opinion is necessary to confirm the diagnosis or to seek help if one feels alarmed by a certain behavioural pattern; This is eventually coupled with multiple rounds of clinical assessments and other forms of interactions with a trained therapist. Although, behaviours can be symptoms of a functioning or a malfunctioning brain, it has, nevertheless, layers of greyness, subtlety and sometimes is bound to change as well.(2)
Illustration by Sebastian Aravena
A few points to be mindful of when researching on mental health issues:
- Anyone can post content online. This means reliability is often a myth when letting the virtual world make a judgement on a mental or physical health issue, nobody really knows.
- Wikipedia isn’t a credible source of Information agency.
- Googling symptoms of any ailments causes health anxiety – Cyberchondriasis is an actual term; bits of it exists in all of us and when groomed further it grows further; We are all vulnerable to taking comfort in the virtual world especially because of the times we are in at the moment.
- Before you go down a rabbit hole of health anxiety and unearthing other alien symptoms you may or may not have, try waiting it out for a couple of days, find healthy coping strategies in the meantime, share it in your safe space and lastly confirm it with a certified professional.
While the temptation to resort to google searches may be great, we would like to conclude by re-emphasizing the importance of referring to credible information available on various databases through universities and organizations.
1. Tubachi, Padmavati. (2018), Information Seeking Behaviour, Retrieved on 27th November from Research Gate
2. Meadowglade. (2020,January), Retrieved on 25th November
3. Chaudhary Suprakash, Srivastava Kalpana, (2018,June), Media And Mental Health, Retrieved on 27th November from NCBI
4. Health and Wellness,Retrieved on 27th November from LIFESPEAK
5. Feifei Liu, (2020,January), How Information Seeking Behaviour has Changed in 22 Years, Retrieved on 27th November from Nielsen Norman Group