By Zac Tellone
In this day and age, social media is a convenient aspect of life often taken for granted. While more people than ever are embracing social media, its full potential has certainly not been reached. Apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat do, of course, allow the average person to easily contact his or her friends and family members. However, for those who suffer from mental illness, social media can be utilized for an even greater purpose: to serve as a tool which eases the discomforts of living with mental illness. Increasingly, researchers are investigating the potential uses of social media for people who are mentally ill. Fortunately, their efforts have yielded a verdict. Social media can benefit those with mental illness by connecting them with others who share their condition, providing anonymity in online support groups, and motivating them to make lifestyle interventions.
Though it may be common knowledge, the importance of forming connections with others cannot be emphasized enough to those with mental illness. As noted by Cornwell and Laumann, adults with mental illness experience a decrease in symptom intensity as their social network size expands (qtd. in Shepherd et al. 2). While it should be recognized that correlation does not necessarily mean causation, the association between social media use and lower symptom severity is undeniably noteworthy. Further proving the link between mental health and social media is the fact that, according to Perry and Pescosolido, socially connected people tend to have better mental recovery outcomes (qtd. in Shepherd et al. 2). Shepherd et al., researchers at Dartmouth College, conducted a study on the subject and found that “those with social networks containing members of a broadly pro-medical orientation experienced better outcomes” (2). This information shows that many people who are mentally ill do in fact make an effort to connect with health professionals through social media, and these connections seem to increase their rate of recovery. In a peer-reviewed source from the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, Naslund et al. note that those with mental illness primarily employ social media for the purpose of connecting with their friends and family (2). Of course, relationships with family and friends are important regardless of one’s mental health. However, those who suffer from debilitating mental illness may rely on social media as their main form of communication because of their socially isolated lifestyle. In any case, it is necessary for these people to form healthy connections online.
In addition to allowing mentally ill people to connect with others, social media provides a convenient, anonymous way to participate in support groups. Online support groups are preferable to face-to-face support groups for a variety of reasons. For one, it can be reasonably assumed that some with mental illness do not wish to be seen in public for fear of being recognized. Others may feel uncomfortable socializing in face-to-face meetings. Still others are unable to attend due to immobility or severe symptoms of their mental illness. Plus, according to a study created by Grant et al. of Fielding Graduate University, those recovering from substance abuse reported higher rates of lying in face-to-face support groups, as well as higher rates of being high or drunk during sessions (10). As for the tendency towards dishonesty in face-to-face support groups, recovering addicts may find it easier to tell the truth from behind a screen. In person, they may feel pressured to lie about their failure to stay sober out of shame or guilt. In this way, anonymous, online support sessions are able to mitigate some of the pressure that comes along with these face-to-face support groups. Overall, it is clear that online support groups hold many advantages.
On a similar note, researchers are also investigating the use of virtual worlds as a means of supporting those with mental illness. Though the phrase “online support group” might evoke mental images of a Facebook group or online forum, virtual worlds are equally viable mediums for hosting support communities. In one peer-reviewed article from the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, researchers Davis and Calitz explain that virtual worlds hold an advantage over other forms of social media because they employ “communication via text messaging, voice enabled technology, file sharing and more, enhanced by immersion in a visually stimulating and interactive 3-D environment” (2). Within these virtual worlds, players engage in a variety of activities, such as establishing businesses, building homes, and forming families (Davis and Calitz 6). Without a doubt, this level of virtual freedom can help people cope with life outside of the game. Besides, as explained by Davis and Calitz, virtual support groups are available to anyone, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week (1). Two people from opposite ends of the world could socialize in the form of two avatars, or digital representations of themselves, while also playing a role in the virtual world. Because of this, engaging in virtual activities could provide a sense of purpose and entertainment for those with severe mental illness.
Another benefit of social media is its ability to motivate people to make lifestyle interventions. The topic of lifestyle interventions is especially important to those with mental illness; Correll et al. writes that “over 80% of people with serious mental illness are overweight or obese” (qtd. in Aschbrenner et al. 1). Such a high rate of obesity among people with mental illness is concerning. It may reflect the immobile or socially isolated lifestyle that many with severe mental illness experience. Regardless, there is no doubt that social media can be used to combat the issue. Aschbrenner et al. conducted a study in which they used various mediums to encourage healthier habits among physically unfit, mentally ill people. Along with their weight management sessions, participants joined a private Facebook group where they could support one another by commenting or posting on the group page (2). The use of social media in conjunction with physical sessions essentially ensured that these participants were being encouraged and educated every day, as opposed to only being given support when they attended physical meetings with their lifestyle intervention coaches. The mixed methods approach to lifestyle intervention was ultimately successful, as the study’s participants reported “being motivated by other participants to make healthy changes” (Aschbrenner et al. 5). In essence, the study showed that social media can be effective in motivating people to make positive life choices.
Overall, social media is an overlooked method of combating mental illness. While no single thing can solve every problem in the lives of those with mental illness, social media can certainly help them connect with others, find anonymous support groups, and make important lifestyle interventions. For those made sedentary or immobile by severe mental illness, social media takes on an especially important role. Even for people who do not suffer from severe symptoms, the Internet is undeniably a valuable asset. Hopefully, the many benefits of social media use will become more appreciated in the years to come. Given enough time, social media may be able to transform people with mental illnesses into more socially connected and physically fit versions of their past selves.
Aschbrenner, Kelly A., John A. Naslund, and Stephen J. Bartels. “A Mixed Methods Study of Peer-to-Peer Support in a Group-Based Lifestyle Intervention for Adults with Serious Mental Illness.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 39.4 (Aug. 2016): 328-334. PsychArticles (EBSCO). Web. 9 Feb. 2017.
Davis, Donna Z., and Willemien Calitz. “Finding Healthcare Support in Online Communities: An Exploration of the Evolution and Efficacy of Virtual Support Groups.” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 7.3 (Aug. 2014): 1 -16. Communication and Mass Media Complete (EBSCO). Web. 9 Feb. 2017.
Grant, Donald S., and Karen E. Dill-Shackleford. “Using Social Media for Sobriety Recovery: Beliefs, Behaviors, and Surprises from Users of Face-to-Face and Social Media Sobriety Support.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture 6.1 (June 2016): 2-20. PsychArticles (EBSCO). Web. 5 Feb. 2017.
Naslund, John A., Kelly A. Aschbrenner, and Stephen J. Bartels. “How People with Serious Mental Illness Use Smartphones, Mobile Apps, and Social Media.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 39.4 (June 2016): 364-367. PsychArticles (EBSCO). Web. 1 Feb. 2017.
Shepherd, Andrew, Caroline Sanders, Michael Doyle, and Jenny Shaw. “Using Social Media for Support and Feedback by Mental Health Service Users: Thematic Analysis of a Twitter Conversation.” BMC Psychiatry 15.1 (Feb. 2015): 29. Psychology Collection (Gale). Web. 1 Feb. 2017.
Header photo from Emaze.