How Social Media Is Changing the Way We Think About Mental Illness

woman using smartphone

As the 1 in 5 adults living with mental illness know all too well, accessing resources and receiving adequate care can be a challenging process. A 2017 study published in “Psychological Science in the Public Interest” found that 40% of the 60 million people living with mental illness go without treatment. The study identified two perception-related barriers to care: stigma surrounding mental health and people’s inability to recognize their symptoms.

The results of this study beg the question: How can we best eradicate stigma and help people identify when they are experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions? Perhaps we should turn to Gen Z when looking for answers, as young people are beginning to chip away at these barriers — largely with their openness on social media.

While social media can be a minefield of triggering content — whether it’s encouraging unhealthy comparisons or exposing users to destructive behaviors — online platforms like Instagram and TikTok also provide spaces to share personal experience with mental illness, find community support and work through trauma in creative ways.

Ultimately, the access to a wide array of personal stories and mental health journeys encourages an open dialogue and allows for more nuanced portrayals of mental health conditions than what we consume in sensationalized films and TV shows.

Thus, social media’s role in changing the dialogue could be considered a critical step in addressing barriers to treatment.

Opening The Dialogue And Tackling Stigma

When perusing your Instagram feed or the TikTok “For You Page,” you’re likely to discover mental health content, thanks to the sheer volume of related posts. The #MentalHealth hashtag has been used in millions of TikTok videos, racking up 11 billion views, and it has generated nearly 30 million public Instagram posts.

This flood of mental health-related posts undeniably normalizes the discussion of mental illness. Young celebrities, influencers and private individuals alike have opened up about their mental health conditions, sharing videos and posts addressing their experiences, panic attacks, depressive episodes, recovery, etc.

In May 2021, former “Bachelorette” lead and current “Bachelor” host Kaitlyn Bristowe shared a selfie with her 2 million followers in which she spoke candidly about her mental health journey.

“I have led a pretty blessed life, and I still suffer from depression and anxiety,” she captioned the photo. “I still need to work on my shadows, stop believing the lies I tell myself, overcoming my traumas (big or small), and learning to love myself. Therapy has helped me for the last eight years more than I can put into words.”

The ABC star and influencer’s post received nearly 85,000 likes and hundreds of comments from followers who shared the difference that therapy made in their lives.

“Thank you for this reminder,” one commenter wrote. “Getting help is normal!”

Making Mental Illness Relatable

Beyond creating an open dialogue, social media platforms also encourage a fresh approach to coping with and explaining mental illness — specifically, using humor.

In one viral TikTok video, a creator jokes about placing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a common anti-depressant medication, in a colorful gumball dispenser. In another video, set to dramatic background music, a creator “keeps score” of her daily match against OCD. She wins a point when she allows items on her desk to remain out of place. OCD scores a point when she reverts to obsessive thinking. Both videos have received hundreds of comments from viewers who joked that they felt “personally attacked” by the accuracy of the clips.

Naturally, there are drawbacks to approaching mental illness with only humor and short captions. Mental health conditions are more complex than a two-sentence description and can result in serious complications if not treated appropriately.

However, tongue-in-cheek posts can make a mental health diagnosis seem less foreign or daunting. Perhaps beginning a medication regimen feels less intimidating knowing that another TikTok user has had a positive experience taking the same SSRI. Or maybe a day of “losing” to OCD doesn’t feel so isolating knowing someone else is facing a similar battle and finding ways to poke fun at the occasional setbacks.

As the robust comment sections on these posts suggest, social media platforms offer a place for healing and finding community — and, in the process, reducing stigma.

Showing Nuanced Depictions And Deepening Understanding

As individuals with mental illness frequently point out, Hollywood rarely offers an accurate depiction of their conditions. Reductive tropes in horror movies or brief, tragic character arcs on medical shows offer a limited understanding of what mental illness looks like day to day.

It’s no surprise, then, that a research study identified a failure to recognize symptoms as a barrier to treatment. If audiences understand dissociative identity disorder (DID) to be an affliction causing homicidal tendencies (as suggested in the 2016 thriller “Split”) or view borderline personality disorder (BPD) as a character flaw of chronically unstable and selfish women (as suggested in Grey’s Anatomy) they’re unlikely to identify their own behaviors as symptoms of mental illness.

Social media, while certainly not an immediate solution to this problem, does serve as a direct line from individuals to audiences. Simply put, users are free to share the real, mundane, Hollywood-unfriendly version of mental health conditions — symptoms that audiences may be more likely to recognize in themselves.

Rather than seeing homicidal rage marketed by Hollywood, audiences are exposed to content creators experiencing fatigue, dissociation, obsessive thoughts or aversion to certain tasks and behaviors. They’re witnessing the day-to-day reality of BPD or OCD. They’re given implicit reminders that people living with mental illness are just people.

Hope For The Future

While social media is a complex tool that can exacerbate anxiety or promote unhealthy habits, it also contributes significantly to the ongoing dialogue surrounding mental health.

An estimated 4 billion people use some form of social media — and most of these users will see mental health-related content at some point while scrolling through their feeds. Much of the available content takes the form of personal stories, which both destigmatize mental health conditions and offer a fresh perspective of what mental illness really looks like.

As the next generation continues to share this perspective, we have reason to be optimistic that stigma-related barriers to care won’t last forever.

Margot Harris is the Associate Editor of Marketing and Communications at NAMI. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and previously worked as a digital culture reporter at Business Insider. She lives in Washington, DC, with her very energetic emotional support dog, Lyla.