Social media: a positive influence for mental health sufferers?

One hundred years ago this month, a renowned Victorian poet sat alone with her depressive thoughts, ready to publish her dialogues with insanity.

Charlotte Mew wrote in On the Asylum Road: “Theirs is the house whose windows are made of darkly stained or clouded glass. The saddest crowd that you will ever pass.”

Her poem expresses the personal struggles she suffered with mental health, interpreting her mental defect as a punishment.

These century-old words symbolise the stigma, dark thoughts and inadequate feelings often suffered by mental health victims which, some say, are still applicable today.

Fast-forward one hundred years, and mental health still has a powerful stigma attached to it.

In fact, according to the Mental Health Foundation, nearly nine out of ten people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination has a negative effect on their ability to socially interact.

This forms the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week between 16-22 May, focusing on how crucial relationships are for physical and mental health well-being.

One major difference between Mew’s time and now has been the movement of this stigmatisation online.

With the world living in a time of online interactivity, the landscape of human interaction has forever been changed and with it, mental health sufferers are developing a dependence.

So, has the time now come to question the consequences of this?

The rise of depression and idealised online profiles

Any regular user of Facebook, Twitter or other social media will have experienced the inevitable feeling of envy when sitting at home on a cold evening, scrolling through their friend’s holiday photos.

Or, the rush of excitement when they’ve uploaded a photo that proves popular within their social circles.

However, recent studies suggest these feelings of social inadequacy and addictive tendency could initiate something much worse: depression.

One study, sponsored by the National Institute for Mental Health, found a strong association between social media use and depression in a sample of young adults.

The study found that depression levels increased in relation to the total amount of time spent using social media, so does social media cause depression?

Laurie Dahl, a senior lecturer at St George’s University of London, suggests there could be a link, describing virtual profiles as “idealised” representations of people.

He says: “Having 500 friends on Facebook may boost one’s notional esteem, but largely these are not ‘real’ relationships.

“Virtual friendships are not the same as face-to-face basic human interaction, which is becoming lost with the increasing influence of social media.

“Humans need to interact with each other. Even on Facebook, most people present an idealised, unrealistic presentation of their life.”

The importance of social media

Natasha Hinde, a journalist for the Huffington Post, sees it differently though.

She describes social media as a “catalyst and conduit” for people to break down public perceptions around mental health, and finally be able to explain how they feel.

Dahl agreed to an extent, saying that social media can offer a number of benefits despite its negative connotations.

He said: “There is a view that social media can be ‘bad’ for one’s mental health, but it’s not as simple as that.

“Social media can empower the mentally ill, be a source of support and have a very positive effect on people.

“It can open up awareness and a dialogue for people with mental health problems, and offer users a place to develop an online presence that tells their stories to a wider audience.”

Mental health disorders are a disease

Megan Steed, a third year student and bipolar sufferer, says that people need to realise that mental health disorders are a disease on the same level as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

The 23-year-old said: “You don’t just get over mental health problems at the click of a finger.

“There is a massive need to have a stable, positive influence to relieve its symptoms. Social media can provide this, but only if used in the right way.”

Mew’s poem continues on to say, “our windows, too, are clouded glass”, representing the idea that mental health problems define and disconnect those affected by them.

Perhaps social media can replace some of these windows with a clearer glass though, and offer sufferers a place to represent their emotions and connect with people – family, friends, friends of friends.

This plethora of virtual networks can help reassure them they don’t have to suffer alone anymore.

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