Susanna Harris was sitting in her graduate lab class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the US, when she received an email that told her she had failed what she describes as “the most important exam in grad school” – the doctoral qualifying exam.
She took the rest of the day off, went home and baked cookies. Then she continued with her regular schedule: Lab, work, home, repeat. Everything seemed fine until she realised she was having a hard time focusing due to lack of sleep.
That’s when she decided to go to the campus health centre to ask for a sleeping aid prescription. The doctor said they could give her a prescription, but for antidepressants instead.
Harris was surprised at how common depression is among Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) students, so she began sharing aspects of her own mental health journey on social media by creating the Twitter account and hashtag #PhDBalance.
People share the stories they might otherwise keep private – stories of anxiety, depression, abuse, substance use, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others comment on the posts and reach out to the author.
“People have found friends and compatriots through our page based on what they are going through, and I think that is beautiful,” said Harris.
While struggles with mental health were traditionally kept private, in recent years, a growing number of sufferers are adopting the opposite tack: Sharing their mental health battles with the world, via social media.
Celebrities like actors Dwayne Johnson and Gina Rodriguez, and singer Ariana Grande, have used social media as a platform to share stories about their mental health and encourage others.
Kevin Love of the US basketball team Cleveland Cavaliers began using his Twitter account to share the story of his struggles after writing an article for The Players’ Tribune. The article highlighted how he came to realise that sharing improves not only his life, but the lives of others.
Sammy Nickalls is an editor and writer who created the hashtag #TalkingAboutIt in 2015. She said she did it because, as a University of Michigan study has found, Facebook and other social media can make people feel worse because they tend to show the happier aspects of users’ lives.
“When all you see are highlights from people’s lives, social media encourages comparisons, FOMO (fear of missing out), all that ‘good’ stuff,” she said.
“That’s why I wanted to start #TalkingAboutIt – because if we’re open about the dark times too, social media will be less likely to make users feel lonely and like their lives don’t measure up.”
People often connect with one another by using hashtags like #TalkingAboutIt and #mentalhealth, which have a broad target audience. #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike is used by people with that specific problem.
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Public relations professional Lauren Evans is a survivor of domestic violence who was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety in 2013. The community she found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook helped her cope.
Evans keeps the hashtag #DVsurvivor and words “Mental Health Advocate” in her Instagram bio to help her find other mental health accounts on social media. Finding others who understood her struggle and didn’t discount her feelings was invaluable.
She said that social media “has been one of the most helpful things for me to have my voice feel validated, especially regarding past trauma. “It’s also super cool to network with others who are on their journey, and it makes it seem more socially accepted.”
It is also common for organisations to use social media as a platform to share information, tips and strategies. The US National Alliance on Mental Health has a Facebook page that provides information about events and a safe space for people to discuss their concerns.
Clinical psychologist Dr Isaiah Pickens believes that when used the wrong way, social media can have a negative impact. “Social media can also exacerbate problems if it’s not the right kind of community and if it’s a community that potentially responds in ways that are toxic,” he said.
“For example, when people sometimes try to share their experience and it is received in a way that increases the type of harassment, intimidation and bullying that happens.”
He cautions that people should think of social media as a secondary tool and get help from professionals and traditional support groups. Seek out groups on social media that share your problem, he said, and give yourself permission to hold back some aspects of your life – it’s important to set boundaries.
For people who are open about their mental health on social media, there is a possibility that they will face backlash from friends, family or co-workers.
Nickalls said, “One time, when I made an understandable and human – in my opinion, anyway – mistake at work and had also been open about my mental health online the same day, a former employer said something along the lines of ‘Maybe you should focus more on your work and less on your mental health.’”
But overall, she said, “I think people in general are thinking about mental health differently than they did before, and they’re using social media to reach out for community and support.” – Kaiser Health News/Tribune News Service