THE BLOG
13/10/2015 13:03 BST | Updated 13/10/2016 06:12 BST

Mental Illness and Social Media: An Army of Support

The media is fit to burst with stories relating our mental wellbeing to our addiction to social media. The BBC commented on a study conducted by Glasgow University to report that "General and night-time specific social-media use along with emotional investment in social media were related to poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem as well as higher anxiety and depression levels." There's a constant pressure to be 'on' 24-hours a day, to be seen as interesting and exciting and, of course, the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out) - factors which are seen as greatly interfering with our mental wellbeing.

However, Anxiety UK realised a few weeks ago... social media may not be all that bad...

Something beautiful happened. Something that made our hearts swell in the offices at Anxiety UK - something that was unexpected, unplanned and all-in-all unmistakably overwhelming.

Ironically, on a day when our IT systems had crashed in the office, the only thing we could possibly do with our time was to spend it researching news articles relating to mental health to post on our social media channels. Twitter and Facebook were the only 'IT platforms' that worked for us that particular day and as we don't have a dedicated Social Media team - (we're a small team here focused on supporting our service users) - we all pitched in on Twitter and Facebook, doing our best to keep people talking and we decided it was time to get interactive! We thrust ourselves into the digital age and created a hashtag. This was a big thing for us as we've never created a hashtag before. Not to insult our older members of staff, but 65% of the office didn't really know what a hashtag was, so this was about to get exciting....

And so our idea as to give the world a high five. We wanted to tell all of our service users, and anyone out there who may have been having a difficult day with their mental health that, 'Hey, you. Here's a high five, because you are doing great. You're so strong, and we're here for you. Keep going, champ.' And this was the birth of #highfiveforanxiety. Now, had I known it was going to go viral like it did, I would've probably taken a better picture of myself, maybe put an Instagram filter on it and maybe not put Clip Art balloons everywhere but the fact is that we simply weren't to know that Zoella was going to pick up on the campaign and then have it break Twitter. But like anything on Twitter the campaign itself is now considered " old news" and in fact has been subsequently covered by various news stations over the weeks and so this blog is somewhat retrospective in this sense.

However what has happened since the campaign was at its peak has been that people are taking a picture of themselves with a high five and writing a message with it. These messages range from people describing their anxiety levels that day, to how they've personally overcome anxiety and the giving of advice to others. And you know what? People are connected and continue to connect. Stunning examples of people, in 140 characters or less, congratulating those involved for being so honest, supporting people who were having a tough day and simply showing that they were there. And so it seems that there is a lot of positivity out there amongst the various social media platforms and indeed on the peak 'high five' day, social media took on an entirely new role in our eyes. It created an inroad to helping those who have felt isolated and on the margins of society by helping them to feel connected to each other. You could ask, what would these people have done before social media? There were weekly support groups in community centres, for sure, or organisations people could join but there were no avenues to connect instantly, share information and provide support on a personal basis like there are now.

But although clearly this example is a strong illustration of how social media can bring benefit to the lives of those that feel on the margins of social exclusion, we do still need to recognise that social media has the ability to cause mental distress and exacerbate any underlying mental health issues. We can't ignore the studies, nor my own personal feelings when I receive a negative comment or Tweet for that matter. The world of social media can be messy, and it can be very damaging at times, especially if you don't take a break from it, but I feel, as do my colleagues here at Anxiety UK that it is also starting a 'destigmatising revolution'. It's reviving peer-to-peer support in an entirely new and exciting way and allowing people to reach out to those they wouldn't usually have had the opportunity to. The high fives we received to our account that day seemed to take on a double meaning - people were high-fiving each other which was lovely but actually, many were holding their hands up, almost to say 'Yes, I'm here, and I'm living with anxiety.' Many images appeared to be a surrender to the stigma, a removal of the mask they've been hiding behind for so long and a celebration that they can finally speak freely.

Watching the world unite on World Mental Health Day on 10 October was beautiful, but I really encourage the world to engage on social media every day to speak out about Mental Health. One day, I hope the need for a specific day each year set aside to talk about Mental Health will not be required - it will just be considered a normal day, where everyone can speak out without the fear of stigma. I encourage those who may be struggling with their mental health to reach out to others, to show that we're an army who are strong and supportive and, ultimately, we can fight our battles together.

To donate to Anxiety UK to help us to continue to support and reach out to those experiencing anxiety, please visit www.anxieytuk.org.uk or call 08444 775 774 or text on 07537416905.

@AnxietyUK