The effect of social media on mental health

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Social media runs our modern-day lives, but have you ever stopped to question what it could be doing to your mental health? And, for those already affected by mental health problems, does social media have a positive or negative effect? Patrick Bawn investigates. 

Over a hundred years ago, a renowned Victorian poet sat alone with her depressive thoughts, ready to publish her dialogues with mental illness.

As part of one of her most renowned pieces of poetry, 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. But still we merry town or village folk Throw to their scattered stare a kindly grin, And think no shame to stop and crack a joke With the incarnate wages of man’s sin.”

Her poem expresses the personal struggles she experienced with mental health, but also suggests the reader stop and picture life from the point of view of the inhabitants of the asylum. These century-old words symbolise the dark thoughts and stigma associated with mental health problems which, some say, are still as applicable today as they were in 1916.

Social stigma
Fast-forward one hundred years, and mental health still has as much of a stigma as ever before. 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 lives, and their ability to socially interact.

One major difference between Mew’s time and now though is the level of communication we have online. With the advent of social media, the landscape of human interaction has forever been changed. And this has impacts on mental health. So, has the time now come to question the consequences?

Any regular user of social media will have experienced the inevitable feeling of envy when sat at home on a cold evening, scrolling through their friend’s recently uploaded holiday photos. Or similarly, the rush of excitement when their own photo receives a flurry of ‘likes’. However, recent studies suggest these feelings of social inadequacy and the addictive tendency of the ‘like’ culture could eventually initiate something much worse – depression.

A cause for depression? 
During one of these studies, a strong association was found between social media use and depression in a sample of young adults, with depression levels increasing in relation to the total amount of time spent on social media websites.

But is it really as bad as it seems? For many people with mental health problems, using these websites can provide an opportunity for self-expression and can even be a catalyst for breaking down misperceptions of mental health.

Social media may have its negative connotations, but it can offer several benefits as well. For instance, it can empower the mentally ill, be a source of support and start a dialogue with those with similar problems. As with most things, the takeaway point is that it comes down to moderation – if used excessively or in the wrong way, social media might cause depression, but, if used sensibly, its positive effects can be second to none.

Cracking the disconnect
Mew’s poem continues on to say, “our windows, too, are clouded glass”, representing the idea that mental health disconnects those affected by it. Perhaps social media has provided the platform to change this though, offering many people with mental health problems a place to discuss their experiences, and a chance to connect with people – family, friends, friends of friends – to build a plethora of virtual networks that reassure them they are not alone and that support is available.

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