Mental Health Online: Why Your Choice of Words Matters
Social media is a very bittersweet tool that we have at our disposal. It is difficult to dismiss the positives it has brought to the world: communication with ease, instantaneous news, unison for young people, and an increase in social debate.
However, social media has its negatives. In a digital reality where everybody has the potential to make themselves heard or become part of a wider community, there seems to be a habit of devaluing serious issues, for the sake of haphazardly throwing together a post without a second thought.
One of these issues is mental health which, despite the influx of discussion, still lacks complete understanding. Social media has created a huge platform for aiding mental health charities: on Twitter alone Mind currently holds over 190k followers; Young Minds UK communicates with a following surpassing 55k; and Time to Change works towards challenging stigma with the backing of more than 120k.
There is an increasing following of support for mental health issues online, with each charity sharing content, hashtags and stories from those fighting the battle against mental illness. The influence of mental health awareness doesn’t just exist in the realm of Twitter, with each of these charities possessing similarly increasing audience figures on sites such as Facebook. Mental health has also become a topic of discussion in the vlog/blogosphere withpowerhouses such as Zoella contributing to the discussion of mental health online to an enormous following of over eight million subscribers. It would seem that, on a large scale, social media has provided a platform for influential figures to reach out and tackle the stigmas that surround mental illness.
However, not everyone can be reached in the internet’s seemingly endless space. Social media, in some ways, still has a way to go in the fight against stigma. Trivialisation still occurs in some people’s lazy use of mental illnesses as descriptive tools. We live in a society where, according to the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 4 people will have to manage a mental health problem over the course of a regular year. It’s clearly a prevalent issue, so shouldn’t we have more of a reason to be considerate when using its related terms online? Mental illness (like any other severe illness) is something which no one would ever desire, so why do some online users still approach it so carelessly?
Everyone can identify with positive and negative emotions. Most of us will recognise the ecstasy of discovering that favourite band or singer’s tour announcement and subsequently anticipating online ticket sales. Most of us could probably recall soaking up the happiness, the state of complete bliss when seeing the said act on stage, whilst their music eases all cares for the small duration of their set. Most of us can identify with the melancholy induced when the experience concludes; when the lights turn back on and fellow fans eventually dissipate, left to watch and re-watch their badly recorded favourite songs and mid-show speeches at home, gloomily clutching the liquid hug of a cup of tea and nursing their ringing ears.
On top of that, most of us would be able to identify with how these low spirits linger as we remember that special event for following months and years, occasionally revisiting the memory with pining nostalgia. Of course, this is sadness when something beautiful ends; it is a sense of longing to relive a positive experience from our past. It is not suitable for the serious label of depression. Too often the term ‘post-gig/concert depression’ is used to nonchalantly describe this anti-climax, despite the fact that a multitude of other suitable phrases exist.
Everyone has individual preferences: having their personal space decorated in a certain way; having their workspace presented in a particular fashion; eating a meal in a specific order. Savouries or sweets first? There are endless examples of individual differences we display as we behave in subtly unique ways to each other, as we express particular tendencies and desires to function in a way which feels comfortable to us. However, do personal and aesthetic preferences necessarily require an immediate, self-diagnosed label of OCD?
We need to think about how we describe our behaviour online. Self-diagnosing with severe, isolating illnesses is not the wisest choice to make whilst wandering in the indefinable boundaries of social media. According to Mind, from the Health and Social Care Information Centre’s 2009 survey, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) affects 1.3 in every 100 people; in the same survey depression was found to affect 2.6 in every 100 people.
These statistics only represented sufferers living at home and did not cover the further figures that would be found (as Mind has stated) in ‘hospital and prison’, and since 2009 it is obvious that such figures cannot be guaranteed to have stayed the same. However, despite the existence of these statistics representing sufferers living at home (assumedly with some form of access to the internet), some online users are still not deterred from being negligent with their vocabulary on social media.
As social media reaches people of all ages all over the world, it would be easy to presume that we can just leave the challenge of spreading awareness and understanding to the above charities and invaluable icons. These have been great aids towards heightening understanding (I myself learned a great deal about mental health from bloggers, vloggers and online resources), but there is still a long way to go.
Within the massive reach of social media, young people form an integral part, but sadly Mind (in partnership with the Lucy Rayner Foundation) recently found that ‘half of 18-24s struggle in silence with their mental health‘. Is this not more cause for us to be more considerate with our posts in an online environment where masses of young people find themselves, often for identification and solace? It’s hard to always remember just how far a single tweet, post or status can reach, and when terms of mental illness are used so irresponsibly, it is alarming to think how many silent sufferers could potentially be further isolated by encountering online trivialisation of their personal struggles.
Mental illnesses are not something that can be switched on or off; it cannot be worn and taken off like a hat. Mental illness is a struggle just like any physical illness: it’s an ever-present struggle spanning beyond a mood swing or a sporadic tweet. Mental illness is not just something which should be thrown in and out of our online consideration, either.
The fantastic discussion created by charities’ online presence, bloggers and vloggers should be constant, but also not trivialised. To trivialise anyone’s difficulties is unacceptable, leaving us responsible for ensuring our own online use of mental illness’ related terms are appropriate. However, no one is in the place to state that an individual who uses such terms online is not a genuine sufferer, and a lot of progress has been achieved by the individuals who feel comfortable with sharing their experiences with those whom they can reach online.
Social media has provided a massive step forward by maximising discussion and increasing awareness, but this does not mean we shouldn’t be meticulous. Alongside seeking personal help if it is needed, a big move towards thwarting the stigma of mental illness is to treat it seriously with the upmost care and understanding so as to not dismiss the battles fought by those who may be suffering silently. To overcome this obstacle we must give a great deal of attention to the meanings of the words we use, especially before we use them.