Social media can provide real benefits.
A growing number of young people — particularly millennials — are seeking support online for serious mental health issues.
Social media is now nearly ubiquitous, particularly among young people. That’s true even for mental health. One 2014 study found that half of people ages 13 to 25 prefer receiving mental healthcare via text or online communication to speaking in person — and fewer than 16 percent wanted to make phone calls.
The near-total saturation of online media among young adults also provides fertile ground for the growth of community. As a result, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, and other social media are becoming a locus for peer mental health and support.
Young adults approach online communication differently, says Carol Landau, PhD, a professor at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School. “I think generations from the millennials on are going to just expect online interaction,” says the psychologist, who often works with millennials.
Privacy is also less of a concern. “I’ve actually talked to them about this, and they say, ‘It’s not a big deal.’” Whereas older generations would hesitate to reveal private information such as a mental health diagnosis online, “A lot of millennials don’t actually expect privacy,” she says, with some surprise.
Online communities may provide unique help to those with serious mental health conditions, which still aren’t easy to talk about. “I think what’s happening now is that the Internet has opened us up to people all over the world,” Landau says. “So it’s kind of like a huge self-help group. Which I think is great, mostly.”
In one study, researchers at Dartmouth analyzed videos uploaded to YouTube by people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or schizoaffective disorder (in which symptoms of mood disorders — mania or depression — are combined with symptoms of schizophrenia, such as delusions or hallucinations). The 19 videos, the majority made by people ages 18 to 35, had attracted an average of more than 20,000 views and a total of 3,000 comments.
Because such interactions occur outside the medical profession, many worry about the safety and reliability of the information participants receive. But researchers did not find evidence of misleading information in the videos or comments, and noted that first-person accounts are perceived as more accessible, and thus more likely to generate interaction and provide support. Instead, they said, the videos appeared to minimize isolation, offering those with similar diagnoses an opportunity to learn from shared experiences of medication use and healthcare and helping them find ways to adjust to their condition. They also provided a sense of belonging and inclusion those with severe illness might not find in their day-to-day lives.
“It’s okay, you’re not alone,” one commenter wrote. “There are many of our kind and we are lost without each other, but now thanks to the Internet we can reach out to each other so we can discuss what we hear openly and honestly with no fear of being judged.”
Landau says online social support is similar to earlier in-person groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers or those for rape victims and veterans of war. “All these groups have two things in common,” she explains. “One is they don’t feel they’re being totally helped as much as they could be by the medical profession. But also they’re groups associated with shame. … It’s not easy to come out as schizophrenic or bipolar to people because you are afraid of their reactions, which makes these online possibilities very hopeful.”
Support groups are known to offer benefits, Landau says. “I use the term social healing. All of us want human contact. All of us want to be understood. We want to feel connected to people, and know to a certain extent they understand what we’re going through. These are universals. And so if anything breaks that down — let’s say illness, or other stresses in your life — and it breaks that human connection, then we’re all going to push back and say we want that.”
As a result, even getting support online can be a major help, she says. “What’s great for this is that people can A) overcome the shame, because they are talking to other people, and B) they can have access now to people who have had very similar experiences.”
While Landau sees social media as largely positive, there are a few things to watch out for.
- Remember that your personal health information is yours and protected by law. Opinions differ over expectations for privacy in most aspects of life these days, but you disclose this information at your own risk.
- Take what you hear with a grain of salt, particularly regarding medications. “Everybody has an opinion,” Landau says, but if you’re taking a mood stabilizer or antipsychotic, suddenly discontinuing those medications could be dangerous. Talk to your doctor if you’re contemplating a change in your medication.
- Do research among authoritative, reliable websites. “I think a lot of people who are savvy enough to be online and on YouTube are also savvy enough to know some of the websites that are more evidence-based,” Landau says.
- Be sure that whoever you’re listening to, they’re offering advice that is neutral, based in independent research, and without conflicts of interest. “If anybody’s selling anything,” Landau says, “that would be a big red flag.”
- Don’t get caught up in the unreality of social media. “What kids post on FB and Instagram — it’s curated,” Landau notes. “It’s almost like you have an avatar.” Most people don’t take pictures of themselves at work in a cubicle or washing the dishes. Instead, they post while at a party or an exciting event. “It’s a very select group of comments and images,” she says. Don’t compare yourself to others — and remember that it’s only a version of real life, not life itself.
May 06, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA