By Trevor Smith and Abigail Spriggs/Matters of the Mind
As humans we like to create communities, we gravitate toward others who have similar interests and beliefs. Today, with the popularity of social media and online forums many of our communities aren’t face-to-face but rather screen-to-screen. Millennials are flocking to forums, free chat lines and social media as avenues for seeking information about mental health issues.
The digital world is active: there were 1.44 billion active users on Facebook as of November 2014, according to Facebook, and 233 million blogs on Tumblr, according to the site. These numbers and the increasing demands for mental health services, make social media sites popular platforms for hosting conversations about mental health.
In February 2015, Facebook launched a new suicide prevention tool that allows users to report concerning posts to Facebook moderators. Facebook representatives responded to email interview requests with a press release and a link to information explaining its mission and process regarding the initiative. The company has a team working around the clock to monitor these posts, according to the release.
If the team at Facebook identifies a user as potentially “in distress,” a list of mental health resources will appear at the time of the user’s next log in. However, Facebook wrote in a post that if a user notices a direct threat of suicide from anyone on the site, he or she should contact local emergency services immediately.
In the release, Facebook says that its goal is to not only assist individuals who could be expressing suicidal thoughts, but also to help guide their friends and family through potentially unfamiliar circumstances.
One of the resources that Facebook suggests to users is Now Matters Now, an organization that provides support for people coping with suicidal thoughts. The Facebook team partnered with the organization’s founder, psychologist Ursula Whiteside, to help develop this new initiative.
Similarly, the social blog site Tumblr has partnered with sponsors such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to produce the site Ok2Talk. As the name suggests, the blog offers a space where users can feel comfortable discussing their mental health struggles without facing judgment.
Joni Agronin, a communications coordinator for NAMI, says the majority of the interactions on Ok2Talk are about “venting” and “inspiration” between peers.
While professional counselors are trained to offer support on Ok2Talk in many capacities, these online communities can serve as additional group therapy for users.
Tumblr has also implemented a tool to recognize users who search for depression, suicide or mental health blogs in general. If the site notifies that you frequent these pages, it sends you the following message:
Those prominent social media platforms are not the only mental health outlets. Other digital opportunities for building strong social connections. One emotional health service is 7 Cups of Tea, which connects people to trained and active listeners, so that they can have a private conversation about whatever is on their mind.
Telephone chat lines have been around much longer than web-based social media, but are still seen as an important tool for mental health outreach.
The California-based mental wellness-related organization TEEN LINE, has been operating since the 1980s. It allows teens to have confidential phone conversations with other, psychologist-trained teens in California an allotted evening time slot. TEEN LINE is affiliated with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which supports the organization through various expenses but provides no direct funding.
TEEN LINE’s marketing and research coordinator, Chris Murphy, says it usually gets “a lot of suicidal users, and [employees at TEEN LINE] hear from others who have felt the same way.”
The site also offers an online forum for those who feel more comfortable with text, and the forum is moderated by site staff who can identify and address troubling posts by visitors. One teen outlined his suicide plan on the forum and it caught the eye of other users who then directed the post to Teen Line site administrators.
Through the help of the local police force in the user’s location, Teen Line was able to step in and get the young man the help he needed.
The danger of going digital
As a digital generation, millennials are becoming increasingly comfortable with receiving help from online sources. This is a shift from a time when psychologists may have been the sole source of mental health information.
Some doctors are concerned about these online trends, not just among young people but for all mental health patients, according to Dr. Stephanie Pope of University Hospitals of Cleveland.
‘That’s how mental health works—you’re going to have your bad days and you’re going to have your good days and it’s important to share both’
As a specialist in the areas of child and adolescent psychiatry, Pope believes that “people should be informed and be 100 percent comfortable with their treatment, but some of the information is inaccurate.”
With the growing digital world, Pope knows that social media and mental health will inevitably intertwine. In her recent study, Pope found that 60 percent of patients are seeking information about their own health through social media platforms.
For millennials, these non-face-to-face methods may soon become the standard way to seek help. This is why the goal of these online communities is not to coddle the users, but instead open the mental health discussion to the world so that users don’t feel alone.
“That’s how mental health works—you’re going to have your bad days and you’re going to have your good days and it’s important to share both,” Agronin says.