Over the past few years, the stigma surrounding mental health issues has been greatly challenged, but while the acceptance and acknowledgement of these issues have improved, there are many that still struggle with their mental health on a daily basis.
James* is one of those people. Living at home with his mum and younger brother Louis, James is 20 years-old and works as an apprentice, spending his days carrying out the admin work that keeps the office running.
“It’s almost strange to think that six months ago I was facing one of the most challenging periods in my life,” he says. Feeling anxious and isolated, negativity plagued on most days, amplified by hours of scrolling through his friend’s seemingly perfect lives on social media. One day things got so bad, that James tried to take his own life, saved only by the intervention of his family.
Despite the fact that social media can contribute to mental health issues, the usage of social media sites in the UK continues to grow. In early 2017, 39 million people were users of social media, according to figures from Statista. This number equates to around 58% of the population and has likely increased further in recent months as social media apps have become even more accessible.
John McGuirk, an accredited therapist working at Bristol-based mental health charity Off the Record, defines mental health issues as by-products of “distress”: “Society fails to give its members the skills to cope with distress effectively. In the face of that, young people fall back on what they can in order to cope: addiction, self-harm, withdrawing, and avoidance,” he says.
“Talking can solve everything, even being able to get problems off of your chest can help to no end.”
The causes of distress that originate from social media can vary depending on the platform. For some users, Instagram may be a catalyst for body image issues, and it’s easy to feel like you’re missing out if friends are posting things you’re not included in, which can ultimately lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. On Facebook, it can be easy to feel a lack of fulfilment when comparing your own life to the personal and professional lives of others.
“Sometimes I look at what other people are doing with their lives and feel shame for not being in the same position myself,” says James, reflecting on days spent feeling insignificant compared to others on his feed.
The impact of this distress can be far-reaching and often results in the development of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In extreme cases, this can mean months or even years of struggle, with some of the most vulnerable people turning to suicide as a means of ending their suffering.
In 2015, there were a total of 6,639 suicides in the UK, and while not all of these were related to social media usage, this figure suggests that far too many are experiencing mental health issues in some of their most extreme forms.
Of the social media sites frequently visited by young people, Instagram was reported as the “worst for mental health,” according to a study covered by the NHS.
McGuirk refers to the damaging actions people take in response to their mental health issues as “negative coping mechanisms,” however extreme these may be. He states that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are perhaps more simply “different names we give to coping strategies young people deploy,” suggesting that although unhealthy, young people impacted by mental health issues are simply doing what they can to cope, however irrational this may seem.
McGuirk adds that “doing more of what we enjoy, or what gives us a sense of purpose or achievement, can give our lives meaning again.” For people impacted by the negatives of social media consumption, this might mean taking a break from their accounts and focusing on a hobby or seeking out other ways to spend their time. This not only contributes towards a sense of personal growth but also helps break the “negative feedback loop,” in which young people might find themselves trapped in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour.
James found that spending time doing what he enjoys helped him cope with his mental health. “Video games are a form of escapism for me, they pull you from reality temporarily and can help people relax.”
“Most mental health issues are rooted in a lack of real, intimate relationships in our lives.”
Notably, it’s much less common for young men to reach out when dealing with their distress, with Off the Record claiming to have “around a 70:30 ratio of women to men in the service,” which can perhaps be explained by the stigma surrounding emotion and what it means to be a man.
Coping with distress healthily and teaching young people not to be afraid to ask for help, regardless of gender, seems to be the key in combatting what has been referred to in the media as a “mental health epidemic.”
McGuirk adds that “most mental health issues are rooted in a lack of real, intimate relationships in our lives,” going on to say that “connecting with people as authentically as you can and learning how to do that courageously, respectfully and deeply” is the key to building better and more trusting relationships, and that this has also been a “life-long journey” for him personally after having experienced suicidal thoughts himself in his adolescence.
The emphasis on personal relationships and communication is important in tackling mental health issues, especially when young people may be feeling isolated and, perhaps ironically, disconnected from the world as a result of using social media. Family and friends can often act as a front line for emotional support, and can subsequently use that position to help young people directly.
“In my experience, you can’t help yourself on your own. It’s only with the support of others you can help yourself,” says James, who spoke to his best friends and his mum when he was at his worst. “Talking can solve everything, even being able to get problems off of your chest can help to no end,” he adds.
McGuirk reinforces this idea, saying that “active listening skills build better, closer relationships,” an approach that can help young people discuss their distress constructively in a non-judgmental environment.
In addition to this, simply doing more and trying to face your fears is also a great way to combat some of the mental health issues that may be influenced by social media. “Avoidance maintains anxiety,” McGuirk says, emphasising the importance of not only trying new things but also the seriousness of acknowledging emotions instead of retreating from them. “Finding a way to gradually expose ourselves to our fears helps us to overcome them,” he adds.
James found that talking about his struggles with friends and family and taking some time away from social media helped him manage his distress. Refocusing his time on his passion for gaming, he was able to escape his worries and reflect of how his mental health has impacted his life.
“In some ways, it’s made me a stronger person,” he says. “But ultimately people shouldn’t have to experience all that negativity, it eats you up inside. I would just say talk to people about the way you feel, take some time away from whatever it might be that’s bringing you down and remember that even the problems and mindsets that seem the hardest to face can be tackled.”
Those experiencing mental health issues can contact the Samaritans for further advice and support at samaritans.org or by phone on 116 123 (freephone).
*Some names have been changed in this article at the request of the interviewee.
Image courtesy of Lukas Rychvalsky via Pexels CC.