Is posting about our mental health struggles on Instagram just making the problem worse for everyone?

This may be a welcome change since last year’s study by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), ranking Instagram the worst social media platform for young people’s mental wellbeing.

But for some suffering mental health struggles, awareness campaigns and Instagrammer’s “itsoknottobeok” captions are anything but helpful, no matter how genuinely intended.

Earlier this year, a member of Gemma’s (name changed for anonymity) family tried to commit suicide. “About that time, people were posting that generic message ‘My door is always open’,” she says. “When a vulnerable person suffers a serious mental health issue, the last thing you need are generic re-posts about having a nice cup of tea.”

Last month, over half a million people posted in support of World Mental Health Day, suggesting Instagram has become a community of support to many – a safe place to talk about mental health struggles where authenticity has replaced the highlight reel.

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“It’s quite disheartening, when you’re in the thick of it all, to see mental health success stories from… influencers,” says Gemma. “For the vast majority of people suffering serious problems… those stories are meaningless to them.”

Kate Siobhan, 31, a journalist who has battled OCD, is quick to agree. “#MentalHealthDay is a complete distraction from what needs to happen, which is that services must be provided. Listening to ‘grammers talk about depression and anxiety or hashtagging is not going to solve that problem. [And] when the response to a ‘mental health’ share on social media is positive, people then rely on it as if it is a form of therapy – which it isn’t.”

Of course, reading about other people’s challenges can also help those suffering feel less alone. Instagram recognises this through campaigns such as #HereForYou to celebrate support networks that exist on the platform. But anyone with anxiety or depression knows it’s much easier to ‘like’ a poignant meme conveying a relatable mental health issue than to talk to a professional. And according to Dr Neo, that’s the real danger of consuming mental health content on the ‘gram: inaction.

“It creates a very real problem if it becomes a crutch. For example, [liking and sharing] to get attention. When a personality trait becomes enmeshed in our identity, it becomes quite scary to seek help because there’s this question of ‘who am I’ without this condition,” says Dr Neo.

What’s more, the Instagram authenticity craze has created an environment where underqualified people have an unprecedented platform to offer advice, making it easy to spread misinformation about what the conditions actually are and promote quick fixes in the form of self-care.

“[Most] influencers giving advice on Instagram aren’t qualified or base their advice on their own limited one-person experience,” says Dr Neo. “Self-care has become extremely Instagrammable [and] can lead to what we call a learned helplessness. The longer a problem exists, the more helpless you’re going to learn to feel. For instance if I know I’m depressed but I don’t know why, I’m not really tackling the root problem I’m just learning to meditate when I feel depressed.”

According to Carmen Papaluca, a researcher at Australia’s University of Notre Dame, whose PhD focuses on the impacts of Instagram on the wellbeing of 18-25 year old women, even though we say we want to see authenticity on Instagram, we actually want it filtered. “Participants in my research consistently mentioned they want to see less ‘fake’ content and more ‘real’ lives – yet when I asked them what they don’t like seeing on their Instagram feeds, almost every group shared a distaste towards seeing ‘negative’ posts or attention-seeking posts.”

This is reflected in what gets the most likes: research shows that positivity is preferred and therefore negative posts are often ‘altered’ or reframed to show an optimistic outcome.

While this can be an effective coping strategy for some, for others a dangerous norm is being created to constantly exude optimism and courage through a filtered sense of reality. “There is now an ideal to adhere to when struggling,” says Papaluca. “So not only will users feel as if their bodies, qualities, achievements are of less value than everyone else’s, now they will feel like they can’t even experience their struggles in the ‘right’ way’”.

Of course, some influencers are more self-aware than others. Grace Beverley, 21, whose account @gracefituk (1 million followers) notes the benefits of normalising imperfection, said: “There’s a heightened onus on influencers to show another side. I make a point of showing my life from all angles. Self-help is fantastic but what might work for an influencer might not work for you. Ultimately we all have a duty to be honest while maintaining sensitivity in our content.”

Elyse Fox, 27, who started @sadgirlsclub (59,800 followers), agrees. “The conversation is so big now people are like ‘use a facemask and your skin will be clear and your insecurities and anxieties will go away. It’s not a real solution,” she notes.

“Our responsibility isn’t just to expose what we’re experiencing but to also provide tools and prompts to action.”

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