Social Media Has Improved Mental Health Awareness—but There’s a Dark Side

Who are you getting your mental health advice from?

If you spend any time on social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, you may have noticed a trend: an uptick in posts discussing mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. Once considered taboo, talking about mental illness online is helping bust the stigmas and form supportive communities.

“One of the best ways to reduce stigma about mental health is to have those tough conversations about it, and social networks make that a lot easier,” says Dr. Sal Raichbach, PsyD, of Ambrosia Treatment Center. “Even if you don’t participate in the discussion, knowing that there are others out there with the same struggle is comforting.” 

While social media has been pivotal to raising awareness and reducing the stigma of mental illness, it hasn’t come without snags.

The Rise in Mental Health Awareness

People tend to feel bolder typing on a keyboard than they would speaking to someone in person, so it’s not surprising that social media has helped smash walls around traditionally taboo topics. This has a significant effect on a culture, which is exemplified by a new hunger to propel the mental health discourse, particularly among millennials.

Millennials came of age at the same time as social media, and they are arguably some of the most savvy users (and creators ) of online mental health communities. Coincidence? Probably not. “Millennials are a lot more open and honest about their struggles than past generations,” says Dr. Raichbach, “especially when it comes to mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.”

On social media and "IRL," each person who speaks up creates a domino effect. “When people talk about their experience with mental health, it makes it easier for others to do the same,” says Dr. Raichbach. “Plus, it makes those who don’t have experience with mental illness become more knowledgeable, understanding, and compassionate.” This helps bust the stigma, which in turn encourages more people to seek treatment.

The Power of Online Mental Health Communities

Anyone with a mental illness can tell you how isolating the disorders can feel. Although mental illnesses are statistically common, you might not know anyone in your own social circle who can relate to your symptoms. That isolation can keep someone from seeking treatment for fear of being judged by their friends and family. Without treatment, the disorder can strengthen its hold over the individual.

That’s where social media comes in. Today, it’s not hard to find Instagram accounts that shine the light on specific disorders like OCD or bipolar disorder, or Twitter accounts of people who are open and transparent about their daily experience with a disorder. 

“Mental health communities on social media provide a place for people to share their experience within a supportive community without judgment,” says Dr. Raichbach. “Those with mental illness can use them to find comfort in sharing their struggles, especially if they are uncomfortable with meeting others face-to-face.”

In other words, social media has helped normalize prioritizing your mental health and getting outside help—even if none of your “real life” friends and family are doing so. This effect is helping younger generations in particular to be more willing to address mental health than their parents and grandparents before them.

Where Mental Health Communities Go Wrong

Your peers might be able to dish out effective and out-of-the-box tips for managing your depression or anxiety that you wouldn't find elsewhere. The problem is, not all the advice is good.

“Misinformation is somewhat prevalent,” says Dr. Raichbach. “Because group members are everyday people, and doctors do not moderate the content, it’s easy for the wrong information to get out there.”

Under the hashtag #anxietyrelief on Instagram, you can find a number of feel-good and encouraging sentiments. One uplifting cartoon by @callyjanestudio shows a girl happily lounging in the bathtub with the caption, “Be kind to yourself.”

All good, right? However, the same hashtag is also awash with questionable advice, and anecdotes are often presented as universal truths. Ashwagandha helps lower your cortisol levels, says one user. Go to a tarot card reading, says another. Herbal coffee is the new “elixir” to reduce your stress, one user claims. 

As is often the case on social media, anything written on a sleek or pretty graphic often gets interpreted as fact, and because posts are so easy to "share" on different platforms, misinformation spreads quickly.

When Your Supporters Become Shamers

Ironically, these online groups that aim to uplift their members can take a dark turn. As "natural wellness" becomes trendy, it's not uncommon for groupsor individual members—to promote ideas that shame others. In particular, a common trend is critiquing the use of pharmaceuticals like antidepressants.

One post under #reversedepression claims, “These are real antidepressants,” and shows plants like turmeric, holy basil, and ashwagandha (a plant commonly used in traditional Ayurvedic healing). The user adds, “Heal the mind naturally” and includes the hashtag #natureoverpills.

These posts are far from cute and harmless: For some people, antidepressants and other mental health medications are vital for fending off thoughts of self-harm, preventing dangerous episodes of mania or psychosis, or reducing the chance of risky behavior.

This can’t be stressed enough: “Many people who use medications are already suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues,” says Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist in California. These people may be particularly vulnerable to feeling judged or shamed. “It does them no good to have external criticism added to their burden.”

If feeling shamed by the very people who are supposed to support them, people taking medications may make harmful decisions about their treatment, such as ditching their antidepressant without talking to their doctor, or trying to hide or ignore possible side effects, according to Dr. Manly.

At a time when rates of death by suicide are on the rise, shaming people about antidepressants is a misguided and counterproductive use of online mental health communities.

Happy + Healthy Social Media Use

Keep in mind that online advice is coming from a peer—not a qualified professional—and just because it worked for one person does not mean it's right for you.

“Be wary in your consumption of information [and] check with a variety of resources to ensure validity,” says Dr. Manly. “Take care to disseminate information that has been fact-checked for accuracy.” Consider taking your skepticism directly to your therapist, who may be able to help you distinguish fact from fiction in your online research, and lead you away from iffy advice.

Speaking of your therapist: “Do not—I repeat—do not use social media as a substitute for a real-life licensed professional mental health clinician,” says Kisha Walwyn-Duquesnay, licensed professional counselor-supervisor at Optimistic Counseling Practice in Houston, TX. 

She adds, “One way to tell if you’re in a really good mental health community is if people are encouraging each other to seek counseling.”

If the community aspect of these mental health groups are enjoyable to you, consider finding a “real life” support group that focuses on your mental health condition. Group therapy may be intimidating at first, but it can have a monumental impact on your life. “These groups give you the same opportunity to meet peers and share your experience, but with the added human connection of a face-to-face conversation,” says Dr. Raichbach.

And a rule of thumb that always works for social media: If someone’s posts are constantly making you feel down, it’s probably a good idea to hide, “mute,” or unfollow them.