The image-driven platform allows us to share our most vulnerable moments. But is this really the best way to foster community and engage in meaningful dialogue about mental health?
My Instagram feed has started to feel like a pocket-size therapist’s office. That is, of course, by design. I follow a lot of fellow contenders with anxiety and depression, as well as celebrities who are open about their mental health struggles who led me to follow a handful of accounts run by therapists and counselors. So, when I scroll—and I scroll a lot—I see a lot of therapy language mixed in with baby and brunch photos. A few recent examples:
A screenshot of a tweet from the poet Maggie Smith that reads: “Your work is being yourself, offering what you can to others. You’ve been doing it all along. Now do it with intention.” (This is something I, a millennial perfectionist, have a hard time remembering, so I promptly took a screenshot of the screenshot and shared it myself.)
A text post from counselor and speaker Nedra Tawwab that provides a list of “How to Take Care of Yourself When You’re ‘The Strong One.’” (This resonated—I’ve been told many times how “strong” and “brave” I seem, even when I’m struggling emotionally.)
A quote attributed to life coach Kristin Lohr that says: “Growth is uncomfortable because you’ve never been here before—you’ve never been this version of you. So give yourself a little grace and breathe through it.” (I mean, who can’t get something out of that?)
This stream of affirmations and reminders has lifted me up in some dark moments, but a few months ago I noticed that it was starting to have another effect, a sort of manic sense of excitement and gratitude for these nuggets of self-help, followed quickly by a crash and a sense of profound overwhelm: Okay, I get it, I know what I need to do. But if doing it was easy, I wouldn’t need these reminders, I’d think. Why does it seem so easy for these people? Am I doing it wrong? Am I doing enough?
These were things I was already working on with a guide in therapy, but on #mentalhealth Instagram, I felt like I was lost in a sea of self-care mandates, trying to figure out which ones applied to me and hoping, if I mimicked others’ openness—and their journaling or skin-care routines—I might feel better. With high rates of anxiety and depression, my generation (millennials)—and the one before mine (Gen Z)—and so, so many of us on Instagram, I knew I couldn’t be the only one.
Seeing and sharing a mental-health meme feels good for a few minutes for the same reason it feels good to share any other meme—that quick dopamine hit. But you can’t really make a mental-health breakthrough without follow-through, and that’s something you don’t get scrolling, or posting, on Instagram. Lori Gottlieb, an L.A.-based therapist and author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, says that while she’s happy people are being more open about their emotional lives on social media, we also have to remember that people are curating what and how they are choosing to share.
“Just think about the idea of how many likes you get for your vulnerability,” she says. “Where’s the line between what the real struggle is and ‘like, like, like’? It takes a different level of courage and strength to put that out there face-to-face and get a response that’s not someone clicking ‘like.’”
She sees it as something akin to an addiction. “Someone ‘likes’ and assuages the pain until the next post when you need more,” says Gottlieb. If we’re busy doing that, or scrolling through dozens of others curating their day to day, we’re not doing the much harder work of understanding your own experiences.
Mental health–focused accounts and those run by influencers often talk about doing “the work.” But what that work entails is different for everyone, and people at different stages of trauma recovery or anxiety or depression treatment need different things; Instagram flattens all of this into the same timeline, whether it’s astrology memes or pumpkin-patch slideshows.
Deepika Mittra, a counselor based in Alberta, Canada, who focuses on treating stress and anxiety, says the benefit many of us get from being part of mental-health communities on social media is a positive response to feeling seen and understood. Instagram’s focus on photos and imagery can heighten that feeling; a selfie of someone smiling or crying adds a layer of intimacy that doesn’t come through with words alone. She says it’s the same reason many people with anxiety and depression and other mood disorders do well in group therapy. But there’s one key component group therapy has that Instagram doesn’t: a mediator.
“In person, if you’re struggling with something, you hopefully also get the benefit of body language,” Mittra says. “If sharing is going on that’s triggering, a mediator can slow things down and check in with people. Bite-sizing all of that, I might go onto Instagram and see the exact wrong thing I need right now.”
The same thing that creates an intimate-feeling community on Instagram can also negatively impact the mental state of susceptible scrollers. A 2017 survey of 1,500 teenagers and young adults, published by the Royal Society for Public Health in the U.K., found that while Instagram got high marks among respondents for emotional support, community building, and self-expression and self identity, the image-heavy platform also scored high in negative effects on body image, fear of missing out (FOMO), anxiety, and depression.
“One of the sticky things about Instagram and other social media is it kind of feels like our social need is being met, but it’s not the same,” said Mittra. “You have that sense of not being alone, talking to people, maybe seeing people with similar concerns or issues or interests, but when you’re with other people in person there’s a familiarity that goes two ways.”
If someone says to you, in person, “I’m really struggling right now,” there’s a sense of vulnerability—and one hopes, empathy—that is hard to fake. On Instagram, as with vacations and dinners and “perfectly happy” marriages, even our state of mind can be curated.
“At first it was really kind of energizing and refreshing to see people mentioning mental health and their struggles with it,” said Kristy Johnson, a nonprofit professional who has used social media in some form for over a decade. She now has one Instagram for both her personal use and to advertise for her photography and jewelry businesses. Through that, she’s become enmeshed in tips for “beating the algorithm,” which she has seen lead to a kind of curated authenticity that includes talking about mental health.
“The attempt to be super relatable and interesting and ‘real,’ and to be kind of edgy, has led people to curate their mental health as well,” Johnson said. “It’s transitioned from something that feels refreshing and relatable to, ‘Oh, wow, how is she doing this better than me? How am I failing at mental health on Instagram?’”
Research shows that these negative feelings might be even worse for the people posting: A 2016 study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found a correlation between Instagram “broadcasting” and loneliness for people who are highly oriented toward social comparison (people who are very self-conscious, highly sensitive, empathetic, and have low self-esteem—all traits of people with anxiety and depression).
Ana Radovic, M.D., M.Sc., an adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, says one teen patient told her they would post on social media about their suicidality and no one would seem to care.
“It’s real-life social behavior, real-life social norms online, so some of the experiences people have are not because of them or their value or their worth or what people think of them, but they’re just these patterns you can’t control,” says Radovic.
Some are trying to control it anyway, using “finstas” (fake Instagram accounts) to talk more freely about their mental-health struggles. The use of finstas has grown among young people over the past several years as those who struggle with mental illness, as well as those just looking to turn down the social pressure, seeking a way to experience the benefits of an Instagram community without getting overwhelmed.
Kimberly, a 20-year-old college student who asked me not to use her last name, says she and her friends use finstas to post how they’re really feeling, but in a meme style that’s at once nonchalant, funny, self-aware, and vulnerable.
“People can post about being suicidal or having a very bad day, but in a way that makes it seem not a big deal,” she says. “Sometimes it makes me feel like my feelings won’t be taken seriously, but [it’s] sometimes comforting because I know I’m not alone.”
“Instagram is a highly pressurized community that is very, very curated while also being public, so young people—and girls in particular—feel a lot of pressure to post there and to be perfect, and it can sometimes be too challenging,” said Yalda Uhls, psychologist and founder of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers. With finstas, Uhls says, those who feel that toll intensely can create smaller, safer groups where they feel more comfortable being themselves.
Curation can lead to inauthenticity, but it can also be a great way to build community. Like most technology, Instagram is a tool, and it’s how we choose to use it in our lives that matters. It cannot replace therapy, but it can help us make profound connections if we don’t get burned out by the firehose of affirmations, advice, and other people’s “work.”
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