(Illustration by Suneesh K)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that human beings possess complex feelings, and often need someone to help them navigate through those.
On the occasion of the World Mental Health Day on October 10, the World Health Organisation (WHO) puts its heft behind raising awareness of mental health issues around the world, and mobilises resources in support of the same. This year, the theme was to make mental health and well-being for all a global priority.
Per the WHO, mental health problems in India are estimated to cause 2,443 disability-adjusted life years (DALY) per 100,000 people. DALY is a measure of the years lost due to premature mortality, living in a state of less than full health, or disability. About 1.6 lakh people committed suicide in India last year and the suicide rate per 100000 people is 21.1. The WHO estimates that mental health issues among Indians will lead to economic losses worth approximately $1.03 trillion between 2012-2030.
Of late, seeking help for mental health issues has become much more acceptable, instead of the taboo it was earlier. This has led to the emergence of social media therapy.
What is social media therapy?
The phenomenon of mental health influencers sharing their advice on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat has come to be known as social media therapy. This could include advice from a therapist, or simply text posts with uplifting thoughts. It is generally `positive’ content that aims to provide people with solace and support through online forums.
The influencers comprise both professionals and non-professionals. Sabih Rahman, a 27-year-old content writer, told moneycontrol: “I have a strong viewpoint when it comes to information that is being circulated online. I have learnt from experience that unless it’s from a legit source and that source is mentioned, it need not be factual at all.”
While people are realising what can and cannot be trusted on social media, there are still two sides to the coin.
There has been a radical normalisation of discussions about mental health. As more people talk about their mental health issues online, the stigma around this important subject is finally eroding.
It may also be noted that there has been a significant shift in the attitude towards self-care, which social media enables. The simple act of sharing one’s thoughts, emotions, and feelings can make people feel like they’re not going through it all alone.
Some social media accounts run by professionals like Catherine Humenuk, cater to specific health conditions that they specialise in. They post extensively and in a well-researched manner. The objective of narrowing down to specifics is to educate people, de-stigmatise, and help those diagnosed understand themselves better.
A 23-year-old singer and writer who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) two years ago said, “I was really overwhelmed at first and had no idea what it was. I decided to educate myself about it and understood that many people experience this. So I’m glad there are BPD-specific pages!”
“Many profiles that deal with specific issues have focused information. For me personally, it was really helpful when I was dealing with narcissistic abuse, and later, anxiety. The therapists I followed were well experienced,” echoes a 34-year-old fashion designer who wished to remain anonymous.
Social media accounts that discuss mental health issues often spur people to seek professional help. They can be the entry point for somebody’s journey into psychotherapy.
Each individual has a personal history and a range of emotions unique to her. It’s important to note that some social media mental health influencers may make blanket statements with a one-size-fits-all approach, which is rarely the case.
According to Itisha Nagar, an assistant professor of psychology in the University of Delhi, research on mental health advice dispensed on social media in 2010 vs. 2022 demonstrated that there was far more accuracy and less misinformation in 2010. “One of the explanations for that could be that for some, mental health advocacy has become a means to an end, and that end is simply content creation,” she says.
Advice provided on social media is much more accessible than professional help, as not everybody can afford the costs or know someone who can help them. In such cases, people turn to posts that speak about the subject in an easier, digestible format.
This can cause one to reach conclusions about one’s mental health without professional help. Which can go two ways. “In some cases, it can be quite valid. Conversation on social media can raise awareness of behaviours or emotions that people did not know they could seek help for. It can lead people to normalise these feelings and enable them to actually seek help,” Prof. Nagar says.
On the other hand, self-diagnosis can complicate the process of psychotherapy for professionals, as they have to first make the patient abandon his self-diagnosis, and then start the treatment.
Janvi Kapur, a counsellor at Tatsam Wellness in Gurugram says, “We call them Google clients. They are often surprised when we tell them that they need to undergo a proper assessment in order for us to reach a diagnosis. We are required to take them through the process before we can help them navigate the issue.”
Keep in Mind
Social media can be a tool of empowerment. It can provide support, educate and also be a means of coping with our issues through encouraging statements, a sense of community, and humour.
However, we need to exercise caution. If the source of the information is not made apparent by an account, one must flag it as inaccurate. Though therapists agree that mental health influencers can act as a springboard to better mental health, they are certainly not an alternative to professional help.