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Get the Most From Your Mental Health Social Media

Be aware and proceed with care.

Key points

  • Misleading information abounds online, so vet content and request sources.
  • No matter how accurate or confident an online professional may seem, they don’t know your individual needs.
  • Self-diagnosing can both validate and backfire.
  • Content can be meant to manipulate you and your emotional responses for someone else's benefit.
AzamKamolov/Pixabay
Phone filled with socials
Source: AzamKamolov/Pixabay

Finding people on social media who also struggle with or know about a particular mental health symptom or diagnosis (e.g., ADHD, eating disorder, OCD, etc.) has loads of upsides. Connecting with these accounts can deliver:

  • effective self-help
  • an increased support system
  • reduced isolation while expanding a sense of community
  • helpful advice for improving symptoms
  • decreased stigma

Since those are all desirable, positive outcomes, what could go wrong?

Questionable Information

The downsides of finding people online who share a particular mental health symptom or diagnosis include but are not limited to the following:

  • solutions presented as one-size-fits-all
  • personal advice offered as if from a professional's expertise
  • individual experiences or cures presented as scientific facts

Given the right circumstance, the influence of any of these can harm. For example, misleading information can make issues worse or more potent, postpone seeking appropriate help, or even become dangerous.

Mental health professionals’ social media can offer confusing messages, too. When the purpose of a post or account is not clarified (e.g., “for educational purposes only”), memes and videos sometimes give the impression of providing professional advice or even therapy. However, social media mental health content is not a substitute for real-life care with a licensed provider. Your unique nuances and greater context have not been considered, and the messages may not support your wellness—even if they appear to. Also, social media offers only bite-size portions of self-help, not thorough treatment plans backed by thousands of hours of training and formal education.

Any account’s posts and video content might include manipulations that help grow both followers and an appearance of trustworthiness or authority on a topic. According to the study, "Anger Is More Influential than Joy: Sentiment Correlation in Weibo," messages that contain anger elicit online engagement more than other studied emotions (e.g., joy and sadness). Since a goal of social media is usually to grow followers or instigate participation, posting in a scientific, neutral, or self-reflective tone may not serve the account. It’s nearly impossible to know the motivations behind what and how something gets shared online.

Diagnoses

As a mental health professional, I feel concerned about a trend I notice: the number of people self-diagnosing from watching Instagram and TikTok videos. I can see how that happens due to the availability of online information. In contrast, culturally competent, professional mental healthcare remains inaccessible for many. Yet self-diagnosing can both validate and backfire.

Here’s what I mean. Years ago, a salesperson I met joked with me, obviously covering her discomfort. She deemed herself as having "cyberchondria" after trying to diagnose her physical ailment via the Internet. This conversation stuck with me. The different labels gave her directions to consider, which seemed both affirming and relieving. However, certain medical conditions that matched her symptoms intensified her confusion and distress. I witness similar reactions in people self-diagnosing their mental health.

A mental health diagnostic match can seem evident, and understandably, someone may apply it. However, the symptoms of numerous mental illnesses look similar. Even professionals can find it challenging to reach an accurate diagnosis. An inaccurate diagnosis can spin a web of negative reactions: unhelpful healing attempts that result in feelings of failure or brokenness, possible stigma, worsening symptoms, delayed effective help, and more.

Get the Most from Your Mental Health Social Media

Despite the risks of confusing information, crafty content, and potentially flawed diagnosis, social media mental health content can offer valuable gains—access to collective experiences, a sense of feeling understood, privacy while exploring sensitive topics, and real-time connection, to name a few. Here are actions you can take to help gain the most from mental health support online:

  • Vet. Ask the poster for their sources. For example, “What's the citation?” and “What backs this concept or claim?” Even if the information is from a mental health professional, still ask. Knowing whether the point expresses the provider’s opinion or paraphrases widely accepted standards and peer-reviewed research matters.
  • When people on social media use absolute statements (e.g., should-, is-, and are-type phrases), an idea can look factual and applicable to everyone. Stop and ask yourself two questions: "Is this factual?" and "Would this apply to all people?"
  • Scan for potential manipulations. If a post elicits your emotional connection due to a tone of anger, righteousness, or authoritativeness, take a breath and reread it. Check if the message rings true now that you are aware of your initial internal response. Having a strong feeling about something does not make it a fact. The messaging could be favoring achieving the poster's online popularity instead of in your best interest. (I’m not saying that people typically do this intentionally or consciously.)
  • Kindly but boldly advocate for yourself, your safety, and your wellness. I genuinely believe it is the only way to navigate online health-related content in a way that can serve you.

Moving Forward

Nearly any self-help has the potential to become self-harmful: for your benefit, proceed with caution online.

This post is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for professional mental health advice or consultations with healthcare professionals.

References

Fan, Rui & Zhao, Jichang & Chen, Yan & Xu, Ke. (2014). Anger is more influential than joy: Sentiment correlation in Weibo. PloS one, 9(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0110184

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