It might appear almost impossible to tally up all the mental-health-related hashtags and social-media campaigns that have launched over the last few years but, despite coming from disparate organisations and with varying agendas, there has actually been one fairly consistent message: that we should be able to talk about mental illness without feel embarrassed or ashamed.That’s what #WhatYouDontSee and #TimeToChange and #HeadsTogether and #StopTheStigma and countless others have been driving at, and it’s working.
The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) recently conducted what they call a “social media listening exercise”, where it observed how young people (19- to 24-year-olds) talk about mental health online. This digital eavesdropping led them to identify that, between July 2017 and May 2018, 134,000 unique social-media users in this age group were talking about mental health.
That is a lot of young people who felt comfortable or confident enough to speak about what is traditionally a taboo topic and it’s hard to be cynical about that. Evidently, all those campaigns have begun to penetrate consciousness. I think that’s called progress.
But a deeper dive into the RSA analysis shows up a few red flags. Young people might be talking to each other about mental health – sharing their experiences, opening up and offering support – but it is not translating to them actually using support services in the real world. Charities and organisations that could provide real help are not effectively using social media to engage with at-risk young people. Resources being shared among peers are often confusing, misleading and lacking in evidence, and there is a tendency for imagery and language that romanticises mental illness.
Unsurprisingly, social-media platforms take little to no moral responsibility for any of this.
It seems quantity is winning out over quality, and the crucial awareness-raising work being done is disappearing into the void when it isn’t backed up with action. The very healthy conversation being had online about mental health is undermined if things end with that conversation. The benefits of it – shared experience, empathy, solidarity – must be supplemented by real-world action, whether that be therapy, counselling, medication or lifestyle changes.
This is not to say that talking about mental illness online is empty – it’s absolutely fundamental – but, like an organisation or business cheerfully throwing support behind a mental-health awareness campaign while ignoring its own employees’ health, there is substance lacking.
The RSA also highlights that shared resources are rarely trustworthy. Instead of responding with a link to a reputable service that could provide real support, young people are more likely to offer their own experience or advice, or point peers towards unmoderated blogs and forums. For all the good intentions, there is a danger that it becomes the blind leading the blind if no one involved in a conversation is able to offer legitimate advice.
That WebMD rabbit hole we have all fallen down after googling flesh-eating bacteria exists just as vehemently for mental illness. Websites know that people online will click on mental-health content, especially if it is provocative and much of it looks genuine. But a closer look will often show up a lack of medical sources, experts or any information guiding users to IRL support.
Speaking openly about mental health and having conversations that work towards eradicating shame and stigma are both hugely important, but they should be considered the gateway to care, not the care itself
As The Pool’s Zoë Beaty has written, guidelines now exist for mainstream media covering suicide (although they are not followed with anywhere near the vigour the issue deserves).
But the existence of these guidelines is at least partly responsible for the presence of helplines and website links at the end of articles about mental illness.
We are getting more used to seeing a screen flash up at the end of an episode of EastEnders, to seeing or hearing the phrase “If you have been affected by any of the issues…” or to pop-culture social-media accounts following up stories with links to relevant charities.
But, in the lawless landscape of social media, where mental illness is a frequent topic of conversation, especially among young people, there is no such consideration taken. It’s rare that an Instagram poem about self-care or a enthusiastic tweet with a catchy slogan also finds space to namecheck a service that might help someone.
As Hannah Jane Parkinson astutely wrote in the Guardian recently, the mainstream online conversation about mental health “is dominated by positivity and the memeification of a battle won”. Access to support for mental illness is not straightforward – there are waiting lists and postcode lotteries and inconvenient appointment times and misdiagnoses to contend with. The process can be made infinitely easier if you know where to look.
The RSA has several suggestions on how to turn the high volume of chatter about mental health online into tangible support for people who need it. They want to see that social-media platforms meet an “accuracy and trust threshold” for mental-health information on their sites and propose a pilot service that would offer free targeted advertising to local service providers. Imagine if algorithms that suggest we buy a pair of shoes were redeployed to ensure that anyone talking about grief or bereavement sees an advert for Cruse or somebody worrying about the cost of therapy is shown a pop-up for low-cost counselling options in their local area.
Declaring oneself as dealing with mental illness is brave and difficult, and being received with empathy and understanding might be a relief or a comfort, but, as well as understanding, it should be met with action. Speaking openly about mental health and having conversations that work towards eradicating shame and stigma are both hugely important, but they should be considered the gateway to care, not the care itself. Online is a great place to start treating mental illness, but it’s the first step, not the final straight.
If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, please call the Samaritans anytime, for free, from any phone, on 116 123.
You aren't alone, even if it feels that way. Here are some more NHS recommended support groups who want you to call if you're struggling with ill mental health.