Many of us have a love/hate relationship with social media for a good reason. These platforms are a way to connect with people and can be a helpful way to share information; however, misinformation is abundant on social media.
We often discuss social media misinformation from the perspective of political conflict and violence, but have we thought about it from a mental health perspective? After seeing words like ‘narcissist’ and ‘gaslighting’ in my feed for the billionth time, I wonder how much your average person understands these terms and mental health conditions.
Are we informed enough to look at these terms in a multi-dimensional way? While awareness is great, are a few memes and 60-second reels effective enough to help us facilitate a meaningful healing journey? How many people are self-diagnosing themselves based on these bite-sized pieces of information?
ESSENCE spoke with a couple of mental health professionals to explore the pros and cons of using social media to learn about our mental health.
The Upsides Of Mental Health And Social Media
I advocate for mental health and feel a sense of joy seeing the abundance of information accessible to everyday people. I also love that qualified therapists share some of this information and give people the language to understand their feelings and experiences.
The information shared online can also help people who feel invisible feel seen and know other people struggle with similar challenges, says Danielle Gautt, a licensed clinical social worker in Los Angeles, California, and owner of Emerge Well Therapy.
“Knowing that you’re not alone and someone else is also experiencing symptoms of trauma, anxiety, depression, or having a hard time is empowering and often helps create a sense of hope and understanding and increases empathy,” she says. “It’s powerful to say, ‘me too,’ or know that you have someone in your inner circle that also experiences those symptoms. It’s a level of support that didn’t exist before social media. It’s also a great way to increase mental health literacy and decrease stigma.”
Generalizing Mental Health Information
The pros of using mental health information on social media are strong, but do any cons exist? One is that people can generalize the information they see online.
Mental health is personal and nuanced since we all experience the world differently and are multi-layered. For this reason, people should tread carefully when taking general mental health information and applying it to their lives. This applies even when the information is coming from a licensed professional.
“Even though licensed professionals can offer mental health information on social media, we are not the viewers’ counselor and are not operating in the role of being a therapist to whoever is viewing the post,” says Kimberly Parker, owner, and therapist at Revive to Thrive Wellness Center in Dallas Texas.
The best way to know what works for you as an individual can be to work with a mental health professional one-on-one. In other words, memes shouldn’t replace actual sessions with a therapist.
“Therapy is so much more than someone giving you advice,” says Danielle Gautt. “Treatment involves assessing and understanding one’s psychosocial history to determine the best interventions for a person seeking treatment. There’s just no way to do that via social media.”
If you can’t afford therapy, consider exploring resources like The Boris Henson Foundation, Black Men Heal, and The Loveland Foundation. Some therapists also offer sliding scale fees, meaning they will work with your income. Your employer may offer some services you can access also.
The Dangers Of Mental Health Misinformation
Not understanding the mental health information you find online, making conclusions about it, and then sharing those conclusions could lead to misinformation and opinion polarization. According to the World Health Organization, opinion polarization is one consequence of misinformation on social media.
Although this term is often used in the context of having extreme political views on either side of the spectrum, I think opinion polarization can also happen regarding mental health. Forming an opinion based on bite-sized mental health information can lead to extreme or oversimplified thinking. For instance, it seems like a common trend for people to call everyone who exhibits certain behaviors a narcissist, assuming they are a narcissist, neglecting the middle of a gray area that could exist.
Someone may have narcissistic traits yet not be a full-blown narcissist; these concepts aren’t as simple as social media makes them. Also, not all people who exhibit narcissistic traits are terrible people with ill intent who need to be cut off.
Reality is it’s easy to fall into this thinking when you’re only learning about mental health through bite-sized pieces of information on social media.
“Mental health information being shared over social media is often time-limited, which is not the case in most clinical settings,” says Parker. “This means that there is very little time to elaborate on various topics [or] issues [and] viewers who are less informed on mental health might not understand the concepts that are being shared.”
Misinformation could also lead you to judge and misdiagnose yourself and others, harming your mental health and relationships. In worst-case scenarios, getting inaccurate mental health information can be deadly, especially if someone is suicidal, says Gautt.
“I often see mental health reduced to wellness tips on social media, and it’s essential to understand that mental health exists on a spectrum, and finding the right level of intervention is so important,” she explains. And that’s where social media falls short. It can be a helpful resource for increasing your knowledge and understanding, but it’s not a place where interventions should be administered.”
Vetting The Information You Consume
Access to mental health information online can be helpful, but take what you see and build on it with a mental health professional or do further research. If you must use the information, ensure it’s sourced from a credible, licensed, evidence-based source. Don’t be afraid to do more research or discuss it with your therapist. Lastly, remember the information you see online shouldn’t be taken as advice.
As Parker says, “Counselors are not supposed to give advice; more so, we are tasked with empowering those that we work with to come to their understanding through our work together.”