It can be easier to open up about mental illness struggles online than IRL—if the fear of alienation doesn’t win out.
Thirty minutes early for a house party, I sat on a stoop by the Williamsburg Bridge, opening and closing apps on my phone. I decided to text an old friend and ask her how she was doing. When she asked me the same in return, I confessed I was slumping.
“Yeah, I could tell,” she texted back. My stomach was in knots. I responded instantly: “Omg was it my Insta presence?” Had my selfie-to-non-selfie ratio signaled I was struggling emotionally—that I had accidentally gone off my meds and was now trying to ease back on them? Was it that boob-forward Boomerang I posted at a music festival that screamed “I am unhinged”?
I’d just read a new study that said people can tell if you’re depressed from your Instagram; the phenomenon was surely at play here. “No,” she said. “It’s just that you hadn’t texted me in a while.”
Oh right, that.
Social media has irreversibly altered the ways in which people with mental illnesses function in the world and are perceived by the world. As a woman with depression, anxiety, and ADHD, I am perpetually torn between the impulse to put forth an image of myself that is desirable and cute—to inspire FOMO in exes while keeping new interests bemused—and the urge to use social media when I’m unwell and need to vent or seek help.
Therein lies the great catch 22: The burden of keeping it all inside is cumbersome, but so is sharing the true extent of your illness to extended family members, people you hooked up with one and a half times, your sister’s husband’s brother’s daughter, even actual friends. Social media has made it easy to keep my illness a secret—how could I be depressed if I’m chilling in a pool drinking rosé? Fraternizing with Rick Ross? Sharing Bloody Marys with a pug? I worry about showing a fuller, truer chronicle of my life, one that includes crying faces side-by-side with Funyun binges, because I don’t want to push people away.
This is a fear common among many people with mental illness—especially as they navigate social media’s impossibly cheery landscape.
Amy Rodriguez, a 26-year-old graduate student with bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and ADD, has been hospitalized twice in the past year and a half. Like every person on the planet, she has a complicated relationship with social media.
Rodriguez has been toying with posting about her recent hospitalizations on Facebook. She worries about alienating people, scaring friends with her less-perfect shades of self. She wonders whether we have the same kind of complex about contamination and contagion around mental illness that we have around physical illness. We avoid people who are bipolar, anxious, or psychotic, she observes, as if they’re conditions transmittable by physically contact. She’s lost real-life friends because of her illnesses.
“If the people who are closest to you can’t figure out how to process this new information about you—that you’re struggling in a serious way, that maybe you’re psychotic or depressed, that you haven’t showered in two weeks—then how are people in your periphery going to react?” she said.
Most nights, after falling asleep with her dog in one hand and her phone in the other, she says she has nightmares about getting kicked out of graduate school. She worries that people will stop seeing her and start seeing the disease instead. She knows that the distinction between a “professional self” and “social self” is blurry, if such a distinction even exists anymore.
“If you’re someone who is already sensitive and vulnerable to bad feedback, because you have a mental illness and everything is magnified 20 times, you have to be extra careful,” Rodriguez said about what she shares on social media.
Despite her hesitance, in July 2014, she wrote a long Facebook post about her bipolar disorder, admitting that she’s considered taking her life. She said she’d been fighting the impulse to hurt herself, so she wanted to ask her Facebook friends if they could message her something they liked about her.
“I intend to turn to these comments when I am feeling low, so I can CHOOSE to use my therapeutic skills to cope with my disorder in a positive (rather than self-destructive) way,” she wrote.
The response was overwhelmingly supportive; she received over 100 messages, many from people she barely knew. “People came out of the woodwork with things that they had been carrying but were afraid to say, or had not been presenting to social media because it wasn’t part of their packaged selves,” she said.
Rodriguez remains wary about how and when to use social media but said, when she has bouts of agoraphobia, Facebook lets her to stay connected with the outside world in a way she couldn’t physically. “It has allowed me to maintain some semblance of having a normal life, because I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m still connected, I know what the kids do these days, I know the haps,’” she said.
However, sometimes, she uses these connections as an excuse not to leave the house. Social media gives her the illusion of a vast friend group, which wasn’t necessarily healthy for her, either. “I’ve definitely used it as a crutch,” she said.
Like most things we love and hate with equal furor, social media is addictive. In 2012, Norwegian researchers actually measured the addictiveness of Facebook and found that younger users and women are more at risk of getting sucked in—as are those struggling with anxiety. (Signs of addiction: You become restless when you can’t use it. You log on to avoid personal problems. You can’t cut down your usage. You spend a lot of time thinking about it.)
“We have also found that people who are anxious and socially insecure use Facebook more than those with lower scores on those traits, probably because those who are anxious find it easier to communicate via social media than face-to-face,” wrote Dr. Cecile Andraessen, who led the project at the University of Bergen, in Psychological Reports.
In other words, anxiety sufferers’ relationship to social media both alleviates and complicates their issues: It may be easier for them to communicate via Facebook than IRL, but that form of communication can also become a crutch, a vice, or even send them further down a dark self-esteem hole.
“If you’re someone who is already sensitive and vulnerable to bad feedback, because you have a mental illness and everything is magnified 20 times, you have to be extra careful [about what to share on social media].”
Jenny Jaffe started the nonprofit Project UROK in 2014 as a space for people struggling with mental illness to share videos where they talk about their experiences, in hopes of chipping away at mental-illness stigma—and the profound sense of isolation that stigma encourages.
As someone who suffers from anxiety disorder, OCD, panic disorder, and depression, Jaffe wishes she’d had this type of community when she was in high school. Yet she acknowledges that social media also heightens the already paralyzing fear of “everyone is having fun without me, oh, and also has good skin.”
“We don’t post fun pictures from the days we spent crying in bed,” Jaffe said. “I think it’s easy to get depressed when you compare yourself to a life that no one else is actually living.”
Outside of communities like Project UROK, created specifically for people with mental illnesses, disclosing mental health struggles has high stakes—personally and professionally. Kat Kinsman, New York author of the forthcoming book Hi, Anxiety, is comfortable posting about her struggles with anxiety but understands why someone else wouldn’t be.
“It’s a thousand times riskier for people who don’t have the privileges I do—a supportive partner, an employer who’s aware and supportive, financial and geographic access to good care, and a culture where mental illness isn’t a taboo,” Kinsman said. “I always wonder if I’ve made myself too vulnerable. I just try to remember that for every thing I post, there are thousands of people going through the same thing, who don’t feel as if they’re allowed to speak.”
Rodriguez, on the other hand, is concerned about the impact on the person who chooses to be that voice for the entire community. “I sincerely worry about the prospect of placing the burden on people with mental illness to do all the talking about this,” she said. “You have to realize what a high-risk proposition that is. I saw what it was like to literally lose my friends. It’s not fair to ask me to take a risk like that for the sake of normalizing mental illness.”
On the other hand, she says, “But if I don’t do that, who else is going to? We won’t be able to talk about mental illness more as a whole, because there will be no reason to talk about it—people will continue to be quiet. We deserve for our stories to be told.”
Perhaps the key is navigating social media for those with mental illness is recognizing the time and place for reaching out. My friend, who’d rather stay anonymous, can’t really imagine posting about his anxiety and depression on Facebook—“too many family members.” But he’ll tweet about it from time to time, which he finds therapeutic.
“I’ve sometimes used Twitter as a means to chronicle my day, and some days depression and anxiety are a big part of that. I think the exercise of putting feelings in 140 characters sometimes helps me to think things through and dig down to what’s upsetting me,” he said. “On Facebook, it’d be more about engagement and starting a conversation, which is generally not what I’m looking for when I’m in that mood.”
Whenever I feel like I want to die, I text the two friends I know can handle it. “I want to die,” I write them. Then I’ll sit on my hands so I don’t post anything on Twitter. I’ll take 20 selfies with the flower crown filter and send them to the four friends I know can handle that. I’ll Seamless myself noodles, do a few squats, and pick at my cuticles until they bleed. I’ll sit on my hands again, but sometimes they come out from under my butt and tap at my phone.
On May 13, I was having A Day, so I went on Twitter looking for love and support, a fact that mortified me then and still does. I asked people to send me photos of dogs because I was sad. One follower tweeted a GIF of corgis on a treadmill, and another friend tweeted an Ewok-looking guy in a knit cap and plaid tee. I spent the next few hours agonizing over whether I should delete the tweet, having only received two responses, proving to the entire universe that I was both sad and unpopular. Vulnerability doesn’t always guarantee gratification, which is why I usually labor to keep my pain light and breezy.
I’ve only felt empowered to share the sloppy, gloomy parts of myself on Snapchat, the app with the absolute lowest stakes, where images and videos disappear and likes don’t exist. In an August article for Vogue, writer Marissa Miller discussed how Snapchat helped her cope with generalized anxiety disorder in a way that Instagram only exacerbated. “The lack of thought I put into my Snapchat posts felt revolutionary to me. I’ve never once taken a photo, then deleted it, only for seven more photos to shamefully emerge in its wake (à la every time I attempt an Instagram selfie photo shoot),” she wrote. “The lengths I’ve gone to sustain my ‘brand’ on Instagram and Twitter makes me a version of myself I’m not only unable to recognize, but one that I don’t like.”
The therapeutic potential of social media, it would seem, can only be unlocked once you unleash your grasp on perfection, when you welcome your flaws and vulnerability, but more importantly, reward yourself for doing so.
“I’ve never especially burdened myself with perfection,” Kinsman said. “I think positive and happy look very different for different sorts of people. I think it’s good to remember that for some people on some days, just getting through it is a triumph—no beach-hair selfie required.”
Last night after some wine, I snapped three close friends a selfie video of me kissing a cardboard cutout of Drake that I just happen to have in my room. My caption was: “I’m depressed af.” In the moment, letting go of those words felt revolutionary.
Maria Yagoda is a writer who lives in Brooklyn above a cheesesteak restaurant. Her writing has appeared on Broadly, the Hairpin, TheAtlantic.com and BuzzFeed.
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