Mental Health, Situation Critical – The Effect Of Social Media

All week the news has been about Prince Harry and Prince William’s revelation’s about their own mental health problems growing up after the bereavement of losing their Mother.

So I am driving in my car, I am getting old now, so I am listening to talk radio instead of a music station and commentators on the radio of which I have been one myself in the past, are talking about mental health and how depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide.

The leading cause! Shocking!

I am a Consultant Psychiatrist, this is my battle ground, this is where I am supposed to be making a difference, I started my career in 2005, and things are only getting worse. The tide is rising not going down. I want people to be feeling better not worse. Just what is going on?

According to the latest estimates from the WHO, more than 300 million people are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015.

Well firstly let’s think about the good news, I think that very genuinely mental health is now well on its way to becoming much more destigmatised – it is in the print, internet and television news almost daily. More and more people are talking about their mental health and that it is ok to suffer from mental health problems without shame.

More people want care, more people tell their GP’s and primary mental health care teams that they want help and so waiting lists go up and we get more accurate figures from organisations like the WHO who reflect this diagnostic data and prevalence – and in that way there is a reporting bias.

It is not that people were not suffering before 2005, it was just that they were not coming forward.

The bad news…that is probably where the good news ends.

There is more and more evidence that facebook, instagram and the like are making people feel worse. Much much worse in my opinion. But don’t just take my word for it.

Professor Amichai-Hamburger, Director of the Research Center for Internet Psychology
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Israel is leading the way in the area of internet research and mental health, he is also a personal hero of mine, although i am biased due to nepotism, (he is married to my cousin).

That not withstanding, Professor Amichai-Hamburger says “in the digital world we inhabit, it is very easy to fall into depression. One major reason for this is that our culture strongly advocates efficiency, where time equals money. As a result people become multitaskers, doing several things at any given moment. The smartphone seems to constitute a particularly effective tool in promoting our ability to carry out several tasks at once, and importantly it accompanies us 24/7 wherever we go. We can chat with friends on Facebook, while we look for a vacation for the coming summer and still be able to check our emails. The problem is that we are not actually fully present anywhere and this can very easily lead to burnout.

In this environment, many people can’t really enjoy anything. They never fully give themselves to any experience and this dynamic leads to a fear of missing out or FOMO as it commonly called. Because you are neither fully present nor often even in the present, you experience a conscious searching for something alternative, something better. The longer you live in this dynamic, the more the situation escalates. This lack of ability to relax in the here and now is highly demanding our wellbeing and causes depression.

In the digital world, young people especially, are constantly spending time with their role models. When you think about it, they are spending a major part of their 24 hour day with these flawless celebs. They accompany them everywhere Instagram, twitter and Facebook. These role models with their perfect bodies and their perfect lives create an impossible comparison where young girls, particularly are likely to feel more imperfect and dissatisfaction with themselves and go on to build a negative body image, low self- esteem and dive into depression.

Another factor that is missing from many lives is intimacy, as many of us have become PRs who have to market their happiness to the world. The world has to know how happy we are. Here again this creates a boomerang effect, since everyone looks so happy in comparison to me, my life suddenly seems to be miserable. Our lack of ability to share our real internal experience with significant others is likely to cause loneliness and depression. We can experience endless interaction but still feel empty.”

It is my ascertation that he is 100 % spot on. I have interviewed and treated celebrities and most of them are living completely fabricated lives. Yes their instagram says one thing, but the realities I assure you are far from real. But we don’t need to look at celebrity, we all do it. I do it! And I know better, don’t I?

But no, if I take a nice photo, (especially when on holiday) I too post it to instagram and facebook and enjoy the dopamine hit that comes in with the inevitable likes that will hopefully follow.

It is completely ridiculous. I should know better. And I am trying to stop after ten years of having a facebook account, I realise it is best used sporadically.

Facebook and instagram are just ways to show off and try to gain attention. Facebook has now rolled out “memories” so just in case you did not see my amazing meal or holiday I had 2 years go, I can repost it so my friends can see it again. Woo hoo!

And don’t get me started on people who use the hash tag, “throwback” on instagram to do the exact same thing. Oh did you not see me in my bikini or when i was in the gym a year ago? Let me repost it, with a “take me back” hashtag.

And so, are we seriously asking ourselves why people are feeling worse not better? We are like addicts who won’t or can’t stop showing off. When I touch the search button on instgram all i see are people in the gym or people eating avocado smoothies in apparent ecstasy!

So i rarely touch that button anymore.

And I go and think about an Easter Egg i never ate but wish i could that’s staring at me from my kitchen.

It’s terrible for our mental well-being. Of course social media is just one aspect of why mental health problems are rife, along with access to care and government funding but i really do believe social media is making things harder in so many ways.

I could carry on, but it’s probably time I ended writing this piece and see how many likes it gets..

Dr Mark Silvert is a Consultant Psychiatrist at The Blue Tree Clinic.

Professor Amichai-Hamburger’s book “Internet Psychology: The Basics” is available for pre-order on Amazon now.

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