Social Media and the Erosion of Mental Health Stigma
As individuals we are continually striving to grow, to adapt to new surroundings and challenges. As the world around us shifts and morphs, seemingly hour by hour, we all must work hard to keep up and not be left behind wondering what on earth happened. Scale this up, and you have a society that is perpetually advancing, always absorbing new information and assimilating it into new “Codes of Conduct”, new benchmarks of best behaviour and a new universal understanding of what is acceptable under the unspoken law of civil society.
The stigma attached to mental health is currently experiencing this in a big way, and undergoing a rapid transformation in public perception. High profile figures are leading the discussion with the likes of Steven Fry, Ruby Wax and Prince Harry freely discussing their own personal experiences on a global stage. Unafraid, unabashed and open. The level of influence afforded by these individuals cannot be under estimated, and paired with the platform of social media, the reach of their message becomes colossal. The dialogue opens up, and the universality of mental health issues becomes open to discussion, and stigmas start to be eroded.
We have already witnessed a marked shift from archaic responses to mental health issues as the public discourse has redefined what is acceptable. Consider the “Cheer up!” response to someone suffering from depression, or indeed “But you seem so confident!” when someone says they suffer from anxiety. Where previously these responses could be considered to be acceptable, even expected, they are now largely tinged with a sense of ignorance and insensitivity. In fact, according to a recent YouGov poll, 84% of people now consider our mental health to be “equally as serious” as our physical health.
How is this happening? What is the powerhouse that is driving the chipping away of these stigmas? I believe that the answer resides firmly in the now ever-present shadow at our backs; social media. No current conversation about mental health can exist without the mention of social media and its impact on our lives. The various platforms have encroached into our mentality, stitching themselves into our way of life, to such an extent that our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us are now inextricably intertwined with our habitual social media use. Our view of the world is increasingly seen through the lenses of Facebook and Twitter, and our opinion of our selfworth is more and more driven by little blue thumbs up.
This phenomenon is still so new, yet already so influential and we ostensibly haven’t fully grasped the far-reaching nature of its power. Of course, as with so many things in life, there are benefits and pitfalls of this new God among us. With a simple scroll we can see a snapshot of our world and the people in it, and we inevitably draw comparisons with our own lives as we’re presented with best of others’. We see the highlights and peaks of those we follow, their best moments and their favourite selves. We see excitement and adventure, far off places and intimate moments. We admire the beauty of their experiences, the variety in their days, and we lap up the lives of others while we compare them to our own. The fulness of the world we scroll through, the never-ending feed of experiences we view, cannot fail to make our own lives seem empty and shallow. We compare ourselves to shiny versions of those we know and even those we don’t. Perhaps we start to question and punish ourselves for not having such a fulfilling and varied existence as everyone else. Why is my life not like this? What’s wrong with me?
But it’s not all bad! We now have instant access to so much information, more than we could ever hope to understand in a single lifetime, which gives us exposure to new and different experiences and raises conversations to a global level with ease. Our spheres of influence have grown from the small community in our immediate surroundings; friends, family, colleagues; to the vast number people on Facebook. But what does this mean for mental health, and our perceptions of it? Perhaps the most apparent result comes from the sheer scale of the shared experience social media offers us. As we all share our thoughts, feelings and experiences on such a public forum, we gather insight into commonalities that we share with those around us. Where we might have felt alone, isolated and cut off in the past; struggling to understand and cope with a mental health issue, we can now see that our struggle is perhaps not as unique as we thought. We can identify with strangers, and learn from their experiences; we can reach out for support from people we’ve never met who’re unbiased and can offer objective thoughts and suggestions; and perhaps most importantly, we can give back to the world by joining in the discussion and breaking down the barriers even further.
The sheer volume of content that we devour through social media shifts our perceptions and subliminally nudges our views in a certain direction. Every meme, every photo, every post we see influences us and tells us what our world is thinking. A two minute scroll through our feeds can change the way we think and act. As someone who has suffered with anxiety, there is comfort to be found in knowing that others have felt what i feel, and thought what i think. Comfort from understanding others’ journeys and support from knowledge that I’m not alone, that it’s not just mine to experience and just mine through which to suffer. Seeing other people openly sharing their fears and vulnerabilities encourages us to do the same. We are now opening up a secret that was never really secret, exposing something universal that can enable us to act without fear of judgement as we deepen our understanding through shared experiences.