Course:LIBR559M/Social Media and Mental Health

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Social media surrounds us.


The interrelation between mental health and social media is a complex and constantly developing one. As more and more users flock to social media sites, these social media platforms (Facebook Safety, 2011; 2015), along with researchers (Chancellor et al., 2016; Jashinsky et al., 2014, “Mental health”, 2015; Peek et al., 2016), mental health organizations (Healthy Minds Canada, 2016; Samaritans 2014; 2016), and the users themselves (Naslund et al., 2016; Passifiume, 2015; Social Anxiety Mouse, 2015; Walker, 2016; Yourex-West & Sosiak, 2015) are beginning to utilize social media in various ways around the topic of mental health.

For the most part, this interaction takes one of three forms, either:

  • providing access to information or support through social media,
  • attempting to initiate interventions for individuals at risk for self-harm through social media,
  • or through raising awareness and removing stigmas around the topic of mental health.

Below are highlighted only a few of the recent ways in which this interaction between mental health and social media is taking place.

Providing Access Through Social Media

Access to Information

The Internet provides seemingly convenient bridges from askers to relevant information, especially with regards to health information. In 2009, a survey conducted by the Pew Internet Group discovered that 61% of adults said that they consulted the World Wide Web for health information (Peek et al., 2015). Access to this information online is particularly important for those seeking information to do with mental health. Because of society’s tendency to stigmatize mental illness and marginalize those who suffer from it, access to information through discreet means is preferable (Peek et al., 2015). Additionally, online resources are useful for remote and hard-to-reach populations, those who do not have enough time, those incapable of traveling, and others where convenience is a necessity (Peek et al., 2015). In such cases, linking people to the information they need through online tools such as blogs and social media is desirable.

Screen capture: Accessing mental health communities using Tumblr

Access to Support Communities

Blogs, forums, chat rooms, and social media can also be used to access support communities. These places offer sufferers of mental illness opportunities to reach out to peers by sharing their experiences and coping strategies (Naslund et al., 2016). Researchers believe online communities help because they provide hope and encourage members to “challenge stigma through personal empowerment” (Naslund et al., 2016). Additionally, research suggests people are more likely to share personal information regarding mental illness through online means (Naslund et al., 2016).

Many support communities use humour to bring people with a common issue together. The Tumblr website Social Anxiety Mouse, for example, posts Internet memes that feature Sam, a mouse with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) to promote the idea that “other people do it too” (Social Anxiety Mouse, 2015). The website provides a link to an About section explaining SAD, as well as external links to information for help and support.

However, access to support communities does not always result in access to information that promotes good health. For example, social media platforms like Tumblr and Instagram have become hubs for “communities that encourage deliberate destruction of one’s own body” such as pro-eating disorder communities (Chancellor et al., 2016). Most commonly, users post and repost text, images, and other media that paint certain behaviours as deliberate choices rather than symptoms of a mental illness (Chancellor et al., 2016). Blogs such as “The Pro-Ana Lifestyle Forever” are also used to provide misinformation about eating disorders (L., 2015). Researchers, however, can use social media to quantify and characterize degrees of mental illness severity (MIS) (Chancellor et al., 2016). This data can be used to predict MIS in users of particular social media platforms like Instagram (Chancellor et al., 2016).

Access to People

The Internet makes it easier for people to connect with individual people who can offer support. The website 7 Cups, for example, offers immediate access to “free, anonymous and confidential online text chat with trained listeners, online therapists & counselors” (7 Cups, 2016). The user only needs to click a button on the homepage to connect with a trained listener, or they can browse listener profiles with Helpfulness, Professionalism, Empathy, Response Time, and Overall ratings (7 Cups, 2016). Users can also filter listeners by topic specialization such as Depression, Anxiety, Grief, and Family Stress (7 Cups, 2016). The website also shows how online support can be assessed and rated by the people that use them.

Attempting Intervention Through Social Media

As social media platforms have become a more ingrained part of people’s daily lives, these platforms, along with organizations and researchers concerned about mental health, have begun to discuss social media as a tool to be leveraged in reaching users at risk of self-harm due to mental health concerns (Facebook Safety, 2011; 2015, Jashinsky, 2014; Samaritans, 2014; 2016). One study described Twitter as a potentially “important surveillance tool” in suicide intervention in the United States (Jashinsky et al., 2014, p. 57). Attempts at intervention and monitoring have taken a number of forms, but suicide prevention in particular has received a great deal of attention, especially the efforts of Facebook and of the Samaritan's "Radar" Twitter app.

Samaritan's "Radar" App

Samaritan’s is a UK based suicide-prevention charity, and in October 2014 they launched a new suicide-prevention app called “Radar” (Samaritans, 2014). The Samaritan’s “Radar” app was built upon the result of one study conducted in the US (Jashinsky et al., 2014), which found that tweets were an accurate means of measuring suicide rates among citizens of various states. This study (Jashinsky et al., 2014) recommended the creation of a suicide-prevention app based off the clinical success of the depression-intervention smartphone app, Mobilyze! (Burns et al., 2011). While Mobilyze! relied on self-reporting to indicate distress, the Radar app mined the publically available information of users (Samaritans, 2014). Users who downloaded the app would receive a notification when individuals they followed on Twitter posted a tweet that had been flagged by Radar (Samaritans, 2014). Upon reviewing the tweet they could choose whether to report it, at which point they would receive information on how to reach out to the individual, as well as information linking them to the Samaritans organization (Samaritans, 2014). While reactions to the app were at first optimistic (Kleinman, 2014; Samaritans, 2014; Scourfield, 2014; Sparkes, 2014), the app was pulled only a week after its initial launch date due to Twitter user outcry (Samaritans, 2016). In particular, users seemed concerned that the app would actually put vulnerable users at more risk than they had previously been (Collins, 2014; O’Neill, 2014).

Self-Reporting Through Facebook

Screenshot: Suicide Reporting through Facebook Help Center

Facebook’s interactions with suicide prevention have focused entirely on a self-reporting model, in which users must identify and then report posts from their friends that they see as indicating distress. An academic article published in 2011 (Ruder, Hatch, Ampanozi, Thali and Fischer), noted that posting suicide notes on Facebook was an increasing trend, and since 2011 Facebook has partnered with the National Suicide Prevention Line in the US to develop a suicide-reporting tool (Facebook Safety, 2011). This was met with mixed reactions (Franzen, 2011, Weeks, 2011). Currently, Facebook is testing a new reporting feature in the US, which will see users able to complete this process much more quickly (Facebook Safety, 2015). Facebook also now has a 24/7 staff which reviews reported posts, and which provides information for reporters and those reported on organizations which offer help, and ways for reporters to reach out to their friends (Facebook Safety, 2015). This new tool is an improvement over the previous reporting process, which required users to first access the Facebook Help Centre and then select “Safety Tools & Resources,” before finally being able to select “Suicide Prevention” which then brought up a series of different options for users. Users outside the US are still utilizing this tool, and the main recommendation remains to immediately contact an outside agency or local law-enforcement (Facebook, "Report Suicidal Content", 2016).

Increasing Awareness Through Social Media

Social media has also been used to generate awareness and open discussion of metal health issues. Supporting the ability for people to join in the discussion and link together media platforms through links and hashtags. Recent campaigns include the library and information science focused #LISMentalHealthWeek, the national #BellLetsTalk, and an local Calgary campaign started by high shcool students, #CCHSLetsTalk.

LIS Mental Health Week

Conceived by librarian Cecily Walker, the LIS Mental Health Week campaign took place on the week of January 18, 2016, and was announced on her blog, “Cecily Walker: Librarian with attitude.” A social media campaign intended to raise awareness and discussion around mental health in libraries, the campaign was itself inspired by another social media campaign “geek mental health week,” itself launched from a blog post. Lis Mental Health Week would be organized around the hashtag #Lismentalhealth, people in library and information science blogged and tweeted articles on the topic (Walker, 2016). The #LISMentalHealth campaign featured the ability of a hashtag to connect content across social media platforms. It aggregated tweets, photos, blogs posts, and a tumblr account created to host anonymous blogs for the campaign (About #lismentalhealth, 2016). It also featured a “twitter chat,” on January 18, where the hashtag allowed for asynchronous discussion over the course of a day.

The Let's Talk Campaigns

The impact of such campaigns is likely best measured in qualitative terms, though two campaigns incidentally both called “let’s talk” offer some quantitative data. The broader Canadian #BellLet’sTalk initiative is sponsored yearly by Bell Canada to raise awareness and discussion and donations to mental health causes. Healthy Minds Canada was one of the participating charities in 2015, who noted a 2303% increase on traffic on their website during the 2015 campaign (Healthy Minds Canada, 2016).

A campaign similar to Bell’s was sparked last year by a group of Calgary high school students and went on to raise $20,000 for the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Centered around the hashtag, #CCHSLetsTalk, the organizers of the campaign hoped that the momentum they generated would keep the issue of mental wellness on the forefront (Passifiume, 2015). The #CCHSLetsTalk hashtag briefly trended at #1 in Canada last year, and individuals and organizations came forward to “sponsor” tweets with the hashtag, donating a few cents for each tweet. One organizer, then sixteen-year-old student Brett Rothery, said the campaign was “Meant to get people talking about issues related to mental health” (Yourex-West & Sosiak, 2015).


Social media platforms can be powerful tools for addressing issues around mental health. Social media can help users access sought after information and link them to support communities, help to monitor people’s mental health, raise awareness, and erase stigma. None of these uses, however, are without flaw. Social media can be used to spread misinformation, and, with regards to monitoring apps, could put vulnerable users more at risk. These initiatives and the scholarly research on possible applications and impacts of social media for addressing mental health are promising but still largely exploratory. Nonetheless, current discussion around the intersection between social media and mental health seems to indicate that this topic is only going to grow in interest and complexity in the coming years.


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