SD started checking out mental health-related content on social media platforms like Instagram during their undergrad. The 26-year-old Bengaluru-based publishing professional, who prefers the pronoun she/they and is following treatment for anxiety, has lately found themselves relating to content on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism. “As I clicked more and more, I related more and more with the stuff they were showing me,” recalls SD, adding that it got them wondering if they had these conditions too.
Like SD, we see a lot of mental health content on social media platforms today, with some people sharing their lived experiences and others suggesting tools to deal with different mental health challenges.
While these conversations and content may help some of us discover and recognise our own mental health experiences, they are also capable of making things worse due to misinformation or bite-sized details out of context.
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According to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry earlier this year that reviewed user-generated content on ADHD on TikTok, approximately half of these posts were misleading. "Clinicians should be aware of the widespread dissemination of health misinformation on social media platforms and its potential impact on clinical care," it said. These findings match an earlier analysis of such content on YouTube.
Contentification of mental health
So, how does the mental health content online help us, and what are its limitations?
Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Chinmay Kulkarni believes that social media platforms can help people share their experiences of living with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. It is not only cathartic for them but may also get them the support they may need.
But, at the same time, content on platforms like WhatsApp tends to oversimplify complex medical conditions."Very oversimplified versions of things make people think that if they are going through some problem, the issue is with them and their thinking is problematic. The issue is not that they might have some disorder or biological problem," explains Dr Kulkarni. "The presence of pop psychology does not give complete or appropriate information that takes into account multiple factors related to mental health," agrees counselling psychologist Namrata Khetan. For instance, Khetan shares that after reading a social media post on ADHD symptoms, someone who procrastinates or finds difficulty focusing may start associating with it. But they will miss out on other factors for its diagnosis. "Reading content that is relatable on reels and videos makes you feel seen or heard. It validates your feelings at that point, but that is not a long-term solution to your mental health," explains Khetan.
Those experiencing mental health-related symptoms may also see a lot of toxic positivity (he defines it as talking positively about unrealistic things) on these platforms. "If someone is feeling suicidal, you're telling that person how beautiful this world is; why don't you change your way of looking at the world; why are you thinking so negatively? This toxic positivity actually worsens the problem," he says.
On social media, it is also common to see words like OCD, trauma, and narcissism used without any context. They have almost become a part of the modern lexicon in mental health conversations online. Dr Kulkarni says that using such terms lightly reduces the seriousness of the issue. For example, by casually saying that someone has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), we may be trivialising the distress experienced by someone with OCD. The same is true when feeling depressed is confused with the medical condition of clinical depression. "So, by trivialising these things, people start feeling that if someone is feeling depressed, so what? Everybody feels depressed, so everyone is in depression," he says. Dr Kulkarni does not worry if people may feel that they have depression without a diagnosis; the problem is that using this vocabulary may lead to a situation where someone dealing with clinical depression may not get the help they need.
And yes, through social media platforms have normalised conversations on mental health and increased the accessibility of such information for at least some, there continue to be many barriers. Khetan speaks of the lack of such content in regional languages that limits its access and the wide gap between the users of these platforms and the larger population who do not use them but need help with their mental health.
How should we consume MH content online?
Is there something we can do about how we consume mental health content or talk about it online?
"Just like we focus on developing [an] appropriate vocabulary for everything else, we need to start building and focusing on the right usage for these terms as well. [A] Lot of psychoeducation and awareness about the impact of language is required," suggests Khetan. She also adds that any apps or platforms providing quick methods and tools as mental health solutions are not helpful every time, and it would require a systematic change with proper regulations to hold those selling or spreading misinformation related to mental health accountable.
For people looking up symptoms or identifying with a mental health condition online, Khetan says that you should reach out to a professional for consultation and the specific help you may need as there is no one size fits all approach to it.
Dr Kulkarni suggests that we should listen to the right voices, generally the experts in that field. He cautions that one must recognise the difference between someone sharing their lived experiences and someone just saying something about a mental health condition without any knowledge. "Rather than reading a 140 characters tweet and coming to some conclusion, it is better to read a 1500 words article from a reliable source. That is a much better option," adds Dr Kulkarni. It is better to be sceptical of anything oversimplified or trivialising any medical concerns. In the end, "Take everything on social media with a pinch of salt."
After it became too overwhelming, SD, too, created some distance from checking out and reading mental health content online all the time.“I have come to a place where I am pretty neutral about mental health content and taking it as just content, not something more serious than that right now,” says SD.
Anmol Arora is a Delhi-based writer