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Mental Health on Instagram: Is it too reductive?

By Clara How, Oct 29, 2020

On World Mental Health Day, I opened Instagram to find my feed and explore page filled with stories. They ranged from my personal friends to public figures, organisations, and brands speaking up about the different faces that mental illness takes on, and that it was, and is okay. It is okay not to be okay. 

In my early 20s, I attended my first counselling session. I didn’t know what the weight on my chest was, but now I know it to be anxiety. Over the years, I’ve been learning to live with this unwelcome tenant in my headspace, but it took awhile to concede that it was okay. It was a recognition buoyed by a shifting public understanding about the importance of mental health, partially set in motion by social media advocacy: to normalise mental health, to understand what it is, and to be understanding for those struggling. 

But I’ve always wondered: for all the good that Instagram does, where are its gaps? There is no lack of information out there, but is it what we need? Between and beyond the watercolour illustrations, lists of symptoms, and text-focused explanations, I wanted to understand social media’s role in education, awareness, and exactly why it makes so many of us feel okay.

* * * *

Instagram is the first thing I check after I crack my eyes open in the morning, and what I fall asleep to mid-scroll. It is my source of escapism, my epicentre of news, gossip, friendship updates, and general information. 

It has also been a place where I’ve learned to check my privilege, hear voices of the marginalised, and be educated about political and social issues. But when it comes to how mental health is advocated on Instagram, I have always felt a strange disconnection. 

As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depressive episodes, I wondered at my lack of affinity with online posts. In the moments where my mind was at its messiest and my spirit broken, I wanted solutions and an oasis of calm. Social media, with its noise and colour, didn’t grant me either. It overwhelmed me when I wanted to be soothed. Even though there were countless posts and voices who were speaking about mental health, I didn’t feel like there were many that truly resonated with me, and even if they did, I felt like an Instagram square wasn’t enough to see me through a tough time. 

My cynicism about social media stemmed from the belief that social media is a double-edged sword. Its pervasiveness is a boon when encouraging people to utilise their right to vote, but a bane when propagating fake news. 

Mental health is something so deeply personal to me that I wondered: can something so important, complex and on such a broad spectrum be sufficiently encapsulated by a medium primarily based on opinions and the curation of your feed?

Cristina Gonzalez, a counsellor at Alliance Counselling Singapore, has a measured view when it comes to discussing mental health online. “The beauty of social media is that it can help people normalise their reality,” she says. “When you read posts where someone is sharing how they have gone through a similar experience, it validates the feeling that there is nothing wrong with you, or what you’re going through. And recognising this could be a first step in getting help.” 

That being said, she doesn’t believe that one can truly get an educated, informed understanding about mental health through this medium. “Social media is made out of opinions, and there is a chance that your biases around mental health could be reinforced, or you might miss out on a lot of information about what the experience is like for other people.” 

With mental health being on such a spectrum, Cristina believes it would be beneficial if there was more factual information, rather than those that attempt to advise, or suggest specific solutions. Even if what was posted was with the best intentions, what is lacking is context. And sometimes, context can be everything. “It’s hard to give advice and to help people when there is zero context to a lot of people you’re reaching out to,” Cristina points out. 

There is a clear advantage in educating people about common symptoms. However, a possible consequence of identifying such symptoms on your own is misunderstanding what it means to have mental illness. “For some younger people who are struggling with their identity, when they find a label that resonates with them, they rush into labelling themselves because it seems to give them information and answers,” says Cristina. The result can be a worrying romanticisation of mental illness. “It’s okay to have depression, but it’s not fun. It’s not something that anyone would want to have.” 

Christabelle Ilankovan, a Clinical Executive at Silver Ribbon Singapore, also points out that misdiagnosis is not uncommon. There was a client who was convinced that he had social anxiety, but she came to realise he had confused his introversion with anxiety. More worrying were younger clients who had normalised self-harm as a coping mechanism, because of what they had seen online. “Because there is no filter on social media, you cannot control how a user chooses to read into the content.” She encourages people to look for verified platforms or those run by organisations or professionals if they wish to get educated about mental health. 

“Mental health is a highly stigmatised topic,” Christabelle elaborates. “It is extremely important that the right language, knowledge, and perspective is used when discussing it online, to make sure that you don’t unintentionally add to the stigma.” 

 

Their words point to a clear direction: that while social media can open the gateway to self-realisation and awareness about what a mental health condition entails or looks like, it cannot replace professional help.

I think about the hours, months, and years that I have spent with my counsellor, and it is unquestionable that this knowledge cannot be neatly summarised into squares, or 280 character tweets. Because of format constraints or, as what Cristina says, a lack of context, certain content cannot help but be reductive. 

And what of self-care mantras, which are sweeping the Internet? Mindfulness has been a trend that is on the uprise, with more people realising that it is not enough to just keep the body healthy and active: it needs to be aligned with the mind. But have terms such as mindfulness, self-care and seeking help all become buzzwords? 

I have to admit that for a long time, I did not put much stock into posts that encouraged me to breathe, to have a bubble bath, to have a cup of tea. I viewed such posts as oversimplified, and cynically wondered how a bath bomb would dissipate all my problems. But Christabelle tells me not to dismiss such posts so quickly, and calls this content a form of positive psychology. 

“People are finally starting to realise that stress is a lot more serious than one might think,” Christabelle points out. “You might not have made the connection between stress and mental wellbeing, but talking about these things raises awareness about how dangerous stress can be when it is unmanaged.” These little self-care rituals and reminders aren’t just ‘for the gram’, but they are coping mechanisms to regulate stress. A cup of tea can be just that — but it can also be a time for you to leave the computer screen, to warm your hands, and inhale the scent of chamomile.

Because mental health isn’t just about mental illness — it’s also about looking after your headspace, whether or not you have a condition. Just as much as a healthy diet and active lifestyle is a part of the discussion of general health, so is self-care when it comes to mental health.

In speaking to multiple people about the subject, 27-year-old Melody words stuck with me. A friend of a friend, she told me that in the wake of the pandemic, she has been feeling the effects of anxiety more keenly. “Sometimes when I’m anxious, I take my mind off work by scrolling through Instagram. When I see a post that encourages me to take care of myself, it does remind me to watch out for signs of anxiety, and be mindful of my triggers.” She curates her feed to include accounts that give these useful reminders, so even when she doesn’t consciously seek reminders, they still come unbidden. 

This was something I came to value when I started to search for content creators — I didn’t just want visual driven posts on my feed; I wanted posts that were mindful of the power of what they were advising people to take time to do. I appreciated creators who took the time to explain, in lengthy captions, what their intention was. I too, began to curate a feed that validated my anxiety, and gave me these little reminders.

One of these accounts was @self_ally, run by Aleesha Khan, who is currently a research intern at a family medicine clinic and has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology. At 14, she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. One thing that stood out to me was her bio, which states: “Take what works, leave what doesn’t” and “Personal research, not therapy”. Her posts include breathing techniques, recognising Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or physical symptoms that result from mental illness, and recommended film lists. 

Over a call, she describes her Instagram account as a service that provides mental health resources to the public in a more accessible way. It’s a responsibility that she doesn’t take lightly. “When you’re talking about marginalised groups, you are responsible for people who are vulnerable,” she says. “Everyone’s illness is different. We cannot be gatekeeping what it means to have anxiety.” She rereads her posts multiple times before posting, and ensures that at least two friends read them to ensure that her message is clear. She also does her own research and condenses information, while qualifying that she is not a professional (yet). 

As someone who creates content about mental health, how does she feel about this topic being ‘on trend’? Aleesha acknowledges that there is definitely an advantage in the topic gaining traction, with more people and media outlets bringing awareness to the issue. But she’s not just interested in being part of the conversation — she also wants to enact change. 

“When it comes to activism, the key word is to be active. Is what you’re doing an act to bring about change?” Aside from her social media activism, Aleesha has emailed ministers and had meetings with the directors of policy development at the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Home Affairs. She felt it was important to share feedback on matters such as the training of first response officers and a more inclusive sex education for queer youth — actions that only they could undertake.  

“What needs to be done is to call out a problem in the system, or bring awareness to things that are underrepresented. It can be issues such as nausea being a symptom for anxiety, or that people of colour experience mental illness differently because of daily microaggressions. These are more specific aspects that need to be talked about.”

One of these aspects was the topic of where to go to get mental health treatments, something that illustrator Anngee Neo wanted to tackle. Anngee caveats that she is not an expert nor an activist, though she discusses social issues on Instagram. Her interest in the topic began when her friends expressed their displeasure about the 25-Day Push Up Challenge, where people post videos of themselves doing push ups to spread awareness about mental health. They felt that it was a movement that did little in actually supporting those that needed help. 

Interest piqued, Anngee conducted what she described as a little experiment. “I put myself in the shoes of someone who needed help, and tried to Google for information. I realised that not only was this information opaque, it wasn’t well advertised or put in a way that was succinct and helpful. It made me angry.” 

It took her two weeks of intensive reading to put together an illustrated comic strip called Mental Health: A Practical Guide to Seeking Help in Singapore, which she posted on her Instagram account, @illobyanngee. “Instagram is where I can reach a bigger audience as compared to my other platforms, and comics are a digestible way of getting information as opposed to slides of text.” In the comic, she illustrated details such as the differences between taking medication, as opposed to receiving psychotherapy and counselling, the costs of treatment and how to use your Medisave to defray costs. 

It sparked discussion in her Direct Messages and comments, but Anngee is clear-eyed about her outreach. “The problem with social media advocacy is that it’s too disparate. You finding my post is incidental — it might have reached several thousand people, but there are so many more who need help.” 

What is necessary, she believes, are platforms or more nationwide movements on a large enough scale that “when you search on Google, an official, comprehensive list of everything related to mental health comes up right on the top”.  There are plenty of resources out there, but Anngee pointed out that if one was struggling, having to sift through multiple sources and pages can be overwhelming and not always helpful.

I saw Anngee’s point about how her content was limited by her social media following and discoverability, but a friend of mine begged to differ. She pointed out that while several thousand people saw Anngee’s posts, these posts could be sent to so many others, who would send it along… and the chain goes on. 

I recalled Christabelle saying the same thing: “The speed at which you can pass information out is one of the big benefits of using social media to promote mental health.” This was what made social media so crucial in advocacy — its ability to plant the first seed into someone’s mind, to ask a first question, to ring a cognitive bell. 

The conversation can start with social media, but it doesn’t end there. It’s a gateway to voices, conversations, resources and a community, but it doesn’t replace any of that.

I admired Aleesha and Anngee’s dedication, but they also left me wondering if I was doing enough. Without speaking to ministers and without a large following, how do I contribute to the bigger picture? 

When I spoke with Alyssa Reinoso, a young widow who charts her journey on her personal accounts @reinosaurus and @drawingfromgrief, she too, heralded the need for change. Her husband, Tyler, had struggled with mental illness before taking his life three years ago. She wrote a Facebook post the day after his passing, and felt what she described as “an immediate, internal feeling to write what the narrative was.” 

“We always read about suicide prevention, but for most of us, it’s nameless and faceless,” she said. “I wanted to illuminate Tyler’s story so people can understand the gravity of mental illness. Not talking about it would have made the stigma worse.” After his passing she thought repeatedly if there was anything she could have done differently, and came to the conclusion that as an individual, there was nothing. “It’s not an individual problem — it’s a societal one. Things need to change.” 

She told me that one of the reasons why Tyler struggled with mental illness was because he had the idea that it was something to be ashamed about, and that it had to be secret. “Mental health needs to be as commonly spoken about as physical health.” Together with co-founders Sabrina Ooi and Luqman Mohamed, they formed Calm Collective Asia, a community that normalises conversations about mental health through talks and events. 

I realised that in my initial distrust of social media advocacy, I was losing focus of the bigger picture. And that bigger picture is to reach a point where a conversation about mental health isn’t seen as strange, or fraught with consequence, or undermined. Social media is giving mental illness faces, names, and experiences to chip away at this stigma, and while I may not be ready to share my personal story online, I could share existing content to help other people with their own starting point of understanding. 

With an influx of new Instagram accounts to follow, I began to share posts that I found useful with my significant other. I shared posts about what it means to have anxiety, and what the common symptoms were, so he could better understand how to support me. He began following similar accounts, and shared useful information that I might not have discovered on my own. 

One day, he sent me a post about the positive traits of someone with anxiety by @realdepressionproject, saying: “This is you.” The list included characteristics such as being detail-oriented, considerate, and courageous. For the first time, I saw a new perspective that I hadn’t considered before. And it did soothe me. 

This is the fourth part of our series, “Mental Health: How are we talking about it?”. Click here for the first, second and third stories. 

In writing this series and speaking with individuals living with mental illness, caregivers,professionals and advocates, we realised just how many questions are unanswered and how misconceptions persist. We might not be able to fill all the gaps, but we wish to make some headway. Check in next Wednesday for the final instalment of this series, which puts together answers, resources, and suggestions to commonly asked questions about mental health by the public and the Dayre community. 

If you or your loved one is in need of support or a listening ear, you may contact Samaritans of Singapore (www.sos.org.sg), Silver Ribbon Singapore (www.silverribbonsingapore.com) or Singapore Association of Mental Health (https://www.samhealth.org.sg/). For caregivers, you may find resources and support at Caregivers Alliance (https://www.cal.org.sg/). 

 

Writer’s Note:
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. I’ve opened about my struggles with anxiety and mental health, my journey in seeing a counsellor, and how I’ve been establishing a support system of my own. In writing this story, I have discovered many Instagram accounts devoted to mental health — too many to name here. @curvesbecomeher, @rachelpangcomics and @depdavecomics are just three of the many local content creators whose work has inspired me. 

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