An illustration of a person sitting in front of a mobile phone with icons of a broken heart, bandage, cloud and confusion.
It can be difficult to sort out information from the constant barrage of mental health content on apps. Illustrations by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada.

Mental Health

Memes to Medical Advice: Drawing the Line With Mental Health Content on Social Media

'There’s a thin line between conversations around mental health and what is pop psychology.'

In a sponsored video on Instagram, blogger Hemali Mistry is seen putting on makeup, while the caption captures her struggles with depression and anxiety. Drawing a connection between makeup and mental health, hers is just one among the 21 million posts that pop up on the platform when you search for #mentalhealth. From sometimes overbearing motivational quotes to artwork around mental disorders, it’s almost impossible not to find mental health content while scrolling through apps, and the onset of COVID-19 has only sent this into overdrive. 

Nearly five years ago, conversations around mental health on social media were starting to gain momentum, said Arpita Bohra, a counseling psychotherapist at a university in Ahmedabad. “Now it’s at this absolutely different level where…it’s something that has come into the vocabulary a lot more.” She feels that many people are comfortable naming what they’re going through and not hiding their challenges because of it. Her clients also share depression and anxiety memes with her, the camaraderie in the comment sections of such accounts helps people feel less alone, Bohra pointed out. 

Some creators focus on habits like going to the gym that have helped them get out of rough mental health spots.

According to Bohra, there are three primary types of content that dominate the mental health space. One is information by qualified mental health professionals, the second is within the self-help category and the third, which is more popular in India, is spiritual content that overlaps with mental health. 

“People like Sadhguru and Sandeep Maheshwari — a lot of my students talk about them — [they discuss] how to be mentally strong, how to get over anything and how to let go of someone,” Bohra observed. With almost 4 million followers on Instagram, Sadhguru is an Indian yogi, writer, and well-known spiritual figure while Maheshwari has nearly 17 million subscribers on YouTube and is popular for his motivational content. Sadhguru has drawn flak in the past for framing illnesses like depression as a “choice” and responded to critics by saying “that the type of chemistry you carry itself is by choice.”

Illustration of a person holding a phone with text bubbles reading '5 signs you have anxiety, 3 stages of grief'

From TikTok to Twitter, quick fixes and easy explainers for mental health are available at your fingertips.

Elaborating on one of Maheshwari’s videos, she reflected, “He acknowledged that he lost someone but then he got over it because he talked himself through these things.” She emphasized that not everyone is at the same level of mental health where they can simply talk themselves through emotionally difficult periods.

Bohra noted that some self-development creators focus on certain habits like going to the gym or objects like crystals that have helped them get out of rough mental health spots. “You would have to be quite healthy to do that. Then [they try to] impose that [as the norm] or say that worked for me, it can also work for you,” she observed.

Earlier this year, fashion blogger Santoshi Shetty drew criticism for offering “therapy” sessions where she offered to listen to people about their problems after her own brush with mental health challenges. Such narratives do not take into account that everyone’s lived experience is different and the socio-economic space in which they exist, Bohra commented. 

The dangers of turning to mental health advice that is not trauma-informed can differ from person to person depending on the challenges they live with. For a person with depression, when these suggestions don’t work it could result in them feeling even more hopeless, Bohra said. “They wouldn’t be questioning why it’s not working. It conforms to their perception that nothing works in [their] life and this is also not helping.” For a person experiencing anxiety, not seeing any change could lead to them feeling more agitated. 

Self-care: a bandaid on a bleeding wound?

The dangers of uncurtailed social media content is higher for children and young people, remarked Shemida Rayan, a Chennai-based psychotherapist. Having worked with youth from lower-income families in Chennai, she has seen vulnerable children consuming content online and self-diagnosing. “They get freaked out about it and then have gone and self-harmed or decided to [die by] suicide because they think ‘Oh no, I have this horrible thing,’” she added.

“Self-care is a part of the mental health recovery process, but it can’t be the only thing.”

Rayan has seen firsthand how the narratives around mental health have been shaped by social media in her ten years as a mental health professional. She feels that people are more aware about mental health challenges than they were in the past but the stigma around mental health, especially medication and therapy hasn’t fully dissipated.

But, it was the recent rise of misinformation on platforms that drove her to take a more active interest in them. “There’s a thin line between conversations around mental health and what is pop psychology,” she elaborated that the latter is when people use the information available around them online to come to conclusions about disorders they might have. 

Also read: ‘A Comparison Game:’ Parents Talk About Social Media’s Impact on Their Mental Health

The misinterpretation of self-care by pop culture as an overarching solution for all mental health situations is another key issue, according to Rayan. Social media has added further momentum to the “self-care revolution” pushing for elaborate nighttime rituals and daily regimes. But the oversimplification of complex issues on social media can take away from the layers that need to be addressed.  “If you just keep slapping self-care on, it’s just like a band-aid, you’re not dealing with the root of the issue,” Rayan said.  

Bohra echoes this sentiment, “Self-care is a part of the mental health recovery process, but it can’t be the only thing.” She believes that seeking out professional help for one’s mental health is a necessary part of self-care and these caveats are often missing on social media.

In order to have a more verified and holistic approach to the content that you’re exposed to, Rayan and Bohra recommend:

  • Checking the qualifications of the mental health professionals you’re following or whose advice you’re reading,
  • Being wary of people peddling quick fixes, 
  • For people talking about their lived experiences, ensure that they hold space for alternatives and not just what worked for them,
  • Reducing engagement with creators who discredit evidence-backed help and medical intervention.
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Memes to Medical Advice: Drawing the Line With Mental Health Content on Social Media