Everyone knows there is a stigma surrounding mental illness. But what fuels the fire of these disorders? The sad truth is we are ignoring one of the most dangerous culprits – social media.
I don’t claim to be an expert, or even right. But as someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety for six years, I speak from some experience. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Periscope or any other form of shared media, these platforms for our social lives can leave us feeling pretty awful.
It is both the best and the worst thing in the world – on the face of it social media makes everything so much easier and quicker. But actually, its simplicity can make things much more difficult. For people who suffer from depressive or anxious thoughts, social media can make them feel significantly worse; this doesn’t just apply to mental health sufferers either.
We build accounts on each social media outlet, to give ourselves a virtual identity. But more often than not people try and portray themselves in a way they want to be perceived, rather than the way they actually are. I think about 1% of my Facebook homepage shows the reality of my everyday life. When was the last time you saw someone put a photo of themselves up without a beach backdrop or candle-lit dinner with their “perfect relationship”? To be truly representative of our everyday lives we would have to occasionally post things like: “you know what, today was a shit day and I’m not feeling that great”. We subliminally fear ruining this harmful convention to such a degree, that we don’t dare to break the mould. A wall of criticism, for being overly emotional or dramatic, hits the few people I know who sometimes do make comments on social media that imply their life isn’t perfect.
But this is what is so dangerous about social media. We all do it – scroll endlessly through our news feeds and feel like our lives are terrible in comparison. For someone with depressive or anxious tendencies, this can be overwhelming. From what I have learned through therapy and from speaking to others with similar experiences, social media perpetuates the vicious cycle of self-criticism, self-doubt and sheer loneliness.
When you’re depressed it feels as if you’re drowning in your own thoughts. Like a kettle coming to the boil, thoughts of self-deprecation bounce off each other at a hundred miles an hour. So looking at other people’s apparently “idyllic” lives widens the gap between “you” and “everyone else”. Imagine a small stickman looking up at a big stickman, in awe of what they think the larger person has. We exemplify others in a way that sets them aside from us, imagining them possessing whatever qualities we criticise ourselves for apparently lacking.
Social media worsens this dangerous habit. Take Snapchat for example- the idea of your “story”. This is basically a set of videos or pictures each day, which show your friends what you’ve been doing. Do we Snapchat when we’ve been crying or feeling lonely? No. My list of stories generally consist of someone having what looks like a great time at a festival, what their boyfriend or girlfriend just bought them or hyping up some achievement they want recognition for. Just look at ex-Instagram sensation Essena Oneill. Adored by her fans because of her seemingly effortless beauty and style, she got paid thousands of pounds to advertise products on her Instagram to her 580,000 followers. Recently, however, she very publicly set the record straight. Exposing the darker reality of her life as a social media celebrity, she re-wrote the captions in her posts showing exactly how fake the story behind each photo was.
I’m certainly guilty of all of this. But that’s just it – we all are. We know that most of the time scrolling through peoples social media leaves us feeling pretty bad about ourselves, yet it’s pretty much the first thing we do when we wake up and the last thing we do at night. Playing devil’s advocate we know it can leave us feeling like an outsider, yet we still do it. The amount of times I have wanted so badly to delete my social media accounts, but I just can’t bring myself to do so. It’s perverse because I know I would be happier for it, but I can’t seem to move from the idea that once it’s gone, it’s gone. All those years of building up this social presence of myself that I have carefully edited and monitored. I think the most telling thing I have found, is that when my depression has been at it’s worst, I have always deleted my apps or de-activated my Facebook. When I feel at my absolute lowest, only then do I possess the rationale to get rid of it all. Because it is at that point that social media can be a catastrophic trigger to drastic thoughts.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that people should talk about this more, because we all know it to be true but we all contribute to the problem. I’m not saying to post about everything bad in your life. Just to have a more communal awareness that actually everyone else’s lives have ups and downs. And that picture you just saw of that person’s perfect life? Take it with a pinch of salt. If a picture can say a thousand words, then it’s not as straightforward as you think.
My Mum, once said to me words that I feel to be truer when it comes to social media than ever: “sometimes you can be surrounded by people and feel like the loneliest person in the world”.