Have you felt depressed after seeing a friend’s holiday pictures on Facebook? Do you feel the urge to go to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram multiple times in a day just to check how many likes your picture, post, or any form of content that you have put out has got, and do you feel depressed if the hits are below your expectations? Has it happened to you at a workplace that you have felt extremely anxious after posting something on social media fearing that it may not get enough traction? Have you gone on a downward spiral after reading negative or hate comments on your post? While it may not be difficult to deal with these emotions on a normal day, but all days are not normal. And for those who are already dealing with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, being on social media can be detrimental. However, social media platforms are powerful mediums where healthy and mature discussions around mental health issues can take place. Today is World Mental Health Day and it’s the right day to “comment” on how mental health and social media go hand in glove.
On October 1, Neha Kayastha, 24, a freelance content writer, wrote a post on Facebook in which she shared the grief of one of her friend’s death by suicide. In the post, she wrote how she was in denial mode about her friend’s sudden demise and procrastinated sharing her grief for about a month. But when she could not keep her emotions bottled up any longer, she decided to write about it to get it out of her system. The intention was also to help all those on her timeline who may be feeling vulnerable and after reading her post they find the strength to talk about their struggles with their loved ones or to share them on social media.
When one scrolls through Kayastha’s Facebook timeline, one will find that along with the regular stuff that she posts, she has also been, from time to time, talking about her struggles with mental health.
“No one has a perfect life. Everyone is dealing with something. However, we shy away from showing our weak and vulnerable side to others. It’s for this reason most people don’t share their fears, grief, and insecurities on social media. They want to be perceived as strong and are extremely careful to maintain a particular image,” said Kayastha.
She added: “When we don’t share our issues, they start affecting us, our day-to-day life, and our existence. It’s best to get these negative emotions out of our systems. Now, whether you do this by sharing your issues, insecurities, fears, sufferings, or grief by talking to your loved ones or by writing on social media, that’s a personal choice you make. The advantage of sharing your pain on public platforms or writing about how you dealt with it is that you may just end up helping someone who is feeling vulnerable or triggered and is unable to open up. By reading your post they may get the strength to talk about or write about their issues too. I feel it’s great to be strong, but it’s perfectly alright to be weak and vulnerable too.”
Just like Kayastha, Nitin Naik, a Mumbai-based sports journalist, too chose Facebook to deal with his depression and to share his grief. Naik lost his wife, Dr Raksha Naik, to cancer in 2015.
“Having been a fairly positive person and a happy-go-lucky guy, I very rarely used to talk about things like depression and grief, despite being aware about it. My wife’s illness though changed my entire outlook towards life and made me realise how impermanent things can get,” said Naik.
He added: “After she passed away, the emptiness hit me after a few weeks. I started binge eating on sweets and chocolates and my weight went to 106 kgs. I started snapping at my parents, close friends and even kids and had unconsciously started talking to myself. I had even developed involuntary movements. It was noticed by my daughter.”
A close psychologist friend suggested that Naik writes about his experiences as he was a habitual diary writer. That is when Naik started penning his thoughts on Facebook in a series titled “From Diagnosis To Death”.
“I think, for me, it became therapeutic. Because my wife had not disclosed anything about her illness to friends and relatives and had warned me as well, we were insulated from support. The series enabled me to share what we went through and allowed her friends to get a bit closer to her. Since I also wrote a lot about symptoms and signs of pancreatic cancer, I hope those reading the posts find them useful and get themselves tested when they sense something wrong.”
Posting that series helped Naik deal with the grief of losing his wife to some extent, however, writing about mental health issues on social media platforms also comes with a lot of responsibility.
“I follow a golden rule of not tweeting or posting stuff on Facebook when I am extremely sad, angry, or depressed. My technique is slightly old school. I write down my thoughts on paper sheets and then type the draft on a word document and save it. I post it the next day. It works very well for me as I can refine and curate my emotions and thoughts,” said Naik.
And a few pieces of advice from Naik while commenting on posts in which someone is sharing his/her grief or writing about their mental health struggles.
“It is important to not look for validation if you are writing about grief and it is also important to not respond publicly to a negative comment about your post. Uppity advice is another thing that comes up when you post emotional stuff. Be wary about it. Also, if you are responding to a friend’s post about emotional struggles following bereavement, please do not use words like, “you must move on”, “you must be strong”, “this too shall pass”, “why didn’t you try this mode of treatment”. You only end up hurting the person even more. If you don’t know what to say or write, it is better to not do so. Social media, if used well, can be a great tool. Just be wary about not using it when you are having extreme emotional swings,” said Naik.
While writing about grief and mental health struggles or sharing personal updates and pictures is a choice one makes, one can’t deny that social media has become an extension of our professional lives too. We are quick to share updates related to project completions, promotions, new assignments, and job switches, but most of us also share our work — for instance, a story or professional photographs or images of paintings or confectionery or handicrafts that we intend to sell — as part of marketing or promotional strategies. While social media is a great platform to do so but there is a catch. The number of likes, comments, shares, or subscribers unfortunately ends up becoming the barometer to measure the level of success. It can get stress-inducing.
“I recently launched two YouTube channels and I use various social media platforms to promote them. While I am not denying that these platforms are a great help, but not always,” said Deepanshu Mishra, a Lucknow-based freelance journalist and founder of Deerghayu Bhav.
He added: “When a video does well on social media, then I worry about whether similar kinds of videos would click with the viewers in the future, and when they don’t then there is added pressure. I then have to start thinking afresh. It’s a vicious cycle and it does sometimes take a toll on mental health. Sometimes I don’t get sleep at night and experience some form of depressive symptoms which I can’t explain. I go into a shell and don’t feel like interacting with anyone for days. It is tough when you are dependent on your venture for bread and butter and then traction on social media becomes a major deciding factor. I personally know some people who had to seek medical help for stress-induced anxiety.”
While there are many young professionals across professions like Mishra who might be dealing with what he is going through, there are those who have, to some extent, understood the social media trends and do not get affected if their work does not get enough traction.
Journalists, for instance, use social media so that their stories reach a wide audience. There is no dearth of content and stories, so “selling” a story on social media is an art. One may have written a powerful story but how you frame your Facebook post, or your Tweet may, sometimes, ends up deciding the fate of the story. Even after putting in so much effort when your work does not get enough acknowledgement in the form of likes, shares, retweets, or comments, it can be a huge demotivating factor. And if this happens repeatedly, then undue pressure gets created.
“Earlier, I used to count the number of likes and comments, but soon I realised that social media functions in a very unpredictable manner and serious stories hardly get the appreciation that they deserve. Besides, if a story gets many likes and comments, that does not necessarily mean that people have bothered to read the story. I then made peace with the fact that genuine readers will go to any length to read a story so now the likes and comments on social media do not bother me much,” said Umesh Kumar Ray, an independent journalist based in Patna.
There are many professionals who measure success and failure based on the traction their work gets on social media which may affect their self-esteem or even mental health and then there are professionals like Tanika Godbole, who are just not bothered about likes, comments, subscribers and followers but continue to follow their heart.
Godbole, a comic artist, started making doodles in 2017 to get out of a bad phase and randomly shared them on social media platforms.
“I was suffering from very low self-esteem and needed a space to be more assertive and express myself without fear. When I started sharing my comics, I did it purely for myself and didn’t care about anyone else’s opinions. I was surprised that people found my work relatable and funny,” said Godbole.
She added: “I get a lot of warm feedback for my comics on mental health. Many people tell me that the comics help them understand their social anxiety better and that they feel a little less alone after seeing the comics and comments of other people going through the same thing. My comics have helped me become a better and a confident person. They have done wonders to my mental health and given me sort of unshakeable self-esteem.”
Talking about self-esteem, in some cases, extensive use of social media may trigger comparison with others, and it can raise doubts about self-worth, potentially leading to mental health issues.
“I joined social media around the same time I started working. One by one, my close friends started getting married, and their wedding pictures, honeymoon pictures, holiday pictures, first Diwali pictures, first new-year pictures, images of first-born, second born etc would affect me deeply. It was also the time when there was pressure on me to settle down. Seeing those ‘happy pictures’ would give me anxiety … anxiety with proper symptoms like sleepless nights, a racing heart, and palpitations. I became social media averse. Though sharing is extremely personal and well within the rights of individuals but wish we could be a bit mindful so that someone does not get affected or triggered because of what we post,” said Ruchi D, a journalist turned entrepreneur. (The contributor was not comfortable sharing her full identity).
Not just adults, sometimes social media has an adverse impact on young children too. “The other day my daughter, 8, made a drawing and was very proud of it. She asked me to upload it on Facebook because that’s what the mothers of her friends do. Very innocently, I uploaded it without realising the impact it may have on her. My daughter was devastated when her drawing got only 12 likes in two days. So much so that she did not touch her crayons for days after that. To date I regret uploading the drawing because it took me a while to make her understand that her drawing was beautiful and the number of likes should not matter,” said Ahmedabad-based Sadhna Shukla, mother of Vedika. (Names changed).
Young adults and teenagers are even more vulnerable. Most are on social media platforms and it’s a nightmare for the parents.
“Call me old school, but I believe in strict parenting. A parent can be friendly but can’t be a friend to children. Our daughter is 12 and is fully aware of the world around and social media tools. Many of her friends have their own handsets and social media handles. So, the pressure is already building up. Both my husband and I are very clear that we will not give her any personal gadget like a phone or an iPad till she turns 16,” said Kalpana Swamy, a communications expert based in Mumbai.
She added: “Since she does not have her individual gadget, she is used to being with us and spends time with us. We do have our movie times shopping times and mealtimes. With regard to the perils of social media, we have our mechanism for keeping her confident of herself. My daughter is a regular pre-teen with her anxieties and insecurities, but, so far, open conversations have been helpful.”
Swamy feels there is nothing wrong in creating a fake account and keeping a tab on your child’s social media activities. It’s important because the various challenges and trends that people accept on social media platforms can turn fatal and young adults don’t have the maturity to understand the seriousness of this.
“For instance, the Blue Whale challenge episode was a scary one. That time we were in Kuala Lumpur and my daughter had just joined an international school in 4th standard. Many of her Chinese and Malay friends had handsets of their own and Blue Whale, along with one horror game where a granny ghost comes home and kills you if you don’t follow the instructions, were topics that were widely discussed. Thankfully, the parents’ counsel intervened, and the situation was dealt with sensitively,” said Swamy.
An experience shared by a Bengaluru-based journalist perfectly sums up why one must not believe or get affected by what one sees on “fun but fake” platforms like Facebook or Instagram. “A few years back I, along with my partner, went on a trip with some other couples. Not everyone knew everyone, but we tried our best to connect. I was particularly miffed at a guy who kept ill-treating and demeaning his wife throughout the trip. He was a control freak who did not respect his wife’s opinions. But since the girl was not reacting, I had no right to intervene. I was aghast when after the trip I saw both posting extremely happy ‘couple pictures’ from the trip. That couple is still a part of my friend circle, absolutely nothing has changed, and their happy couple pictures still pop on my timeline from time to time. It’s both, sad, and annoying. But it’s a perfect example of why one must not get affected by what one sees on social media. And if you can cut down on your time on social media, that would be better for your physical, mental, and emotional health.”
This story is a part of our series on mental health. In the series, you can read the following stories and interviews:
Jerry Pinto, Amandeep Sandhu, Shampa Sengupta, Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole, Karishma Upadhyay and Kiranjit Kaur