LIFESTYLE

How Social Media Helps People With Depression, From Giving Them A Voice To Breaking Down Stigma

'Talking to people who understand the challenges you’re facing can be life-changing.'

18/04/2016 10:29 | Updated 18 April 2016

Depression, which affects one in five people at some point in their life, can be an incredibly isolating illness. 

Aside from the fact that one of the symptoms of the illness is that communication and socialising is hard, there is a huge stigma in society that stems from a lack of understanding about it. 

Although this has created a perfect storm - no one feels able to talk about it and no one understands it because it isn't being talked about - social media is providing a catalyst and conduit for people to break down perceptions around depression, and finally explain how they feel. 

Over the past few years, various campaigns - spawned by both charities and the public - have utilised pictures and selfies to help open up discussions surrounding mental health.

In October 2015, people took to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to share medication selfies in a bid to fight stigma surrounding mental health

This year, to coincide with Depression Awareness Week, depression support organisation The Blurt Foundation has launched a #WhatYouDontSee campaign to educate the public that people with depression don't "look" a certain way.

Felbert + Eickenberg / STOCK4B via Getty Images

Founder Jayne Hardy, who also has depression, says: "Again and again, members of our community tell us they’ve been told they don’t ‘look depressed’, that they can’t be ill because they’ve been spotted smiling, that they’re too young/old/pretty/smiley/privileged to be depressed, and so on."

"We’re so over hearing comments like this. Depression can hit anyone, at any time, regardless of age, gender, and personal circumstance.

"You can't tell from the outside who is suffering, because depression can’t be seen."

The campaign encourages people to share ‘mhelfies’ – pictures of themselves, as someone affected by mental health issues – with a caption explaining what others can’t see.

For example, how they feel, their symptoms and experiences, and how their condition impacts on their lives.

Talking about her own experiences, Hardy says: "It limits me," she says. "It takes away my confidence, my ability to interact with those I love and alters my perspective on everything.

"I struggle to sleep, make decisions or find pleasure in anything I usually enjoy. I question my worthiness and struggle to ask for help because I feel like a burden."

During particularly tough times, social media gives Hardy a window into the outside world, helping her feel less isolated.

"When I’m really unwell with depression I am unable to leave the house," she explains. "So social media allows me to keep in contact with friends and family as and when I feel up to it.

"It also offers emotional support that I wouldn’t be able to access otherwise."

One of the most successful social media campaigns from last year was #MedicatedAndMighty, which was started after mum-of-four Erin Jones shared a photo of herself on Facebook holding a prescription for anxiety pills.

"I have tried living this life without prescription help," said Jones. "It seems to have me on top of the world one minute and rocking in the corner the next. There is no consistency.

"I'm done with that. Anxiety and antidepressant medication to the rescue. Sometimes, folks, we just need help."

Mutha Lovin' Autism Facebook
Erin Jones kickstarted the #MedicatedAndMighty campaign last year.

Her openness on social media inspired a wave of people with mental health problems to share their own personal stories as a way of fighting stigma.

Six months later and Jones says she's noticed more people are talking about mental illness.

"Not just the loudmouths like me that would tell their story to anyone," she explains. "Wallflowers that have been afraid to say 'I'm depressed. Really depressed' are saying it.

"They're getting help and because they're getting help and being honest, more and more people are doing the same: raw truths, cries for help and support, friends holding each other up. That's what I've seen since I've opened up.

"People from all walks of life are supporting each other. It's beautiful."

Hardy agrees, saying that the connections fostered via social media directly challenge the feeling of isolation. She adds: "With a click of a mouse you can find and interact with people in a similar situation to you.

"Just knowing you’re not alone is a massive comfort and talking to people who understand the challenges you’re facing can be life-changing."

Jones says social media can be an incredibly powerful tool for reducing stigma.

"Anytime we speak about our lives, on whatever platform - whether it be in person or online - we are reducing the stigma around mental illness," she explains.

"The internet - social media specifically - is our lifeline to the world. Some of us can't leave the house, but we can talk on Facebook.

"We can be real and vulnerable during a difficult time in our lives and there will be others supporting us in moments. Then from that, someone else is made aware that there was a mental illness issue in a friend they weren't even aware of, so they educate themselves.

"Social media creates this ripple of support, friendships and education. Everyone is reaching a different crowd of friends whenever they speak out.

"The more we all know, the less stigma there is. We still have a lot of work to do though."

According to mental health charity Mind, four out of five people feel that talking about their mental health problems helps, which suggests campaigns like this could do a lot of good.

The hope is that sharing this information so boldly and visibly directly challenges the stigma around mental health.

"Images are powerful. They grab our attention in a way words alone cannot," says Hardy.

"The pictures make an impact because they show us real people who struggle with a real condition, something that’s usually hidden from our social media feeds," she explains.

"Seeing multiple images of other people who have had similar experiences to you can be profoundly affecting." 

Viola Tavazzani Photography via Getty Images

One person who recognises the importance of social media in connecting people is Alison Lawrence, chair of trustees at Depression Alliance, which provides a platform for people with mental health problems to connect.

Lawrence says social media has played a huge part in increasing conversations surrounding mental illness. 

"As with most things, social media can have both a positive and negative impact on wellbeing," she says. "It can make people feel pressured or harassed and on occasion people who do not have or understand depression can often discuss or mention depression in an unhelpful way. 

"However, we are seeing an increasing awareness of the risks of social media and the less helpful attitudes and behaviours are increasingly being challenged."

While social media can open many doors for people with depression, particularly in terms of helping them reach out to others, it does have its downfalls.

Senior copywriter Danielle Montgomery, 25, has suffered from an eating disorder and depression since she was in her teens. She regularly blogs about her experiences on The Huffington Post which she finds "cathartic".

"I enjoy writing to educate, but I do have problems with social media," she explains. "I have a problem with the amount of opinions, misleading information and just general information overload.

"It can be extremely overwhelming and if you come across something triggering, then it's dangerous.

"But overall, having grown up in a time where speaking about mental health was a taboo and uncomfortable situation, I'm happy that social media has allowed the media and charities to create campaigns accessible to all."

For those who do come across triggering content on social media, Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, says: "If you know particular sites are likely to trigger negative feelings and/or behaviour try to avoid them and if you see something upsetting, close it straight away."

Buckley also advises that if you begin to feel vulnerable while using it, then it's best to take a break from it all.

"Spending too much time online can affect our sleep, so to ensure you get a good night’s rest, log out of social media and switch off your devices a couple of hours before you go to bed," he advises.

Despite its risks, social media is great for promoting positive mental wellbeing. 

He adds: "The vast number of different forms of social media have enabled greater access to information and advice on how to look after our wellbeing.

"It can play a really useful role in a person’s wider support network and can help them feel less isolated - particularly for those who struggle to make and maintain relationships or who find it difficult to leave their homes."

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