mental health and instagram invisible illnesses

In early 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health surveyed almost 1,500 young people (ages 14-24) from across the UK to determine how social media apps influence their mental health. The survey asked them to score how each social media platform impacts 14 health and well being-related issues that experts identified as most significant. Ultimately, YouTube received the highest rating (best for mental health) and Instagram the lowest (worst for mental health).

So how can an app that solely focuses on photos be so harmful? For some interpreters, the results of the survey make perfect sense: of course Instagram is the worst app for mental health—seeing perfect photos of other people is bound to make you feel bad about yourself. But why is that?

Dr. Rodney Benson, founder of the Depression and Anxiety Specialty Clinic of Chicago, explains that these seemingly perfect pictures make us feel bad because of the “fundamental attribution error,” our tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are. So, when we see people post perfectly edited photos of themselves looking fantastic and drinking margaritas on a Caribbean beach, we jump to a conclusion that these people are perfect. This idea correlates with the survey data, which reveals that many people ranked Instagram negatively when it came to issues of anxiety, depression and body image.

“Online communities are inherently flawed,” Dr. Benson states, “because they present a distorted view of reality.”

But what if Instagram wasn’t distorted? What if people posted real, non-edited photos with honest captions about everyday challenges, victories and struggles in their lives? And what if people took it one step further and actually used Instagram to openly talk about and de-stigmatize mental health?

Well, they do.

These people exist, and they create Instagram accounts devoted to the education and de-stigmatization of mental health. From suicide prevention, to depression awareness, to eating disorder recovery information, to bipolar disorder and anxiety support groups, Instagram users have formed millions of mental health communities.

The Invisible Illnesses, a nonprofit organization that aims to share other people’s stories about mental illness, uses Instagram to spread awareness. Every few days, The Invisible Illnesses (@theinvisibleillnesses) posts a picture of someone who, at first glance, looks happy, fulfilled, and attractive—maybe even perfect. However, the account quickly challenges these assumptions with their honest captions, revealing the person’s battle with mental illness. The captions include a link to the person’s full story, featured on the organization’s website.

When you first hear about it, this account sounds scary. First, people are asked to be honest over social media. And as if that’s not hard enough, they are encouraged to share personal stories about their mental illness that their friends or family may not even know about.

The result? Overwhelming compassion and support. That’s right—some online communities have found a way to support, rather than harm, users’ mental health. According to Emily Torchiana, founder of The Invisible Illnesses, sharing a story of mental illness is impactful for both the viewer and writer.

“When people share their stories, two things happen: one, other viewers connect with the experience and gain a sense of comfort in knowing that they are not alone, and two, the people who share the stories benefit, as the act of sharing can be therapeutic, thoughtful and reflective.”

While many people fear the risk of cyber-bullying or negative feedback, Emily has never received a negative comment on her organization’s Instagram feed.

Colleen Werner on Instagram
Dancer & mental health advocate Colleen Werner uses Instagram to discuss healing from eating disorders and body image

Colleen Werner is another mental health advocate who runs a popular Instagram account (@leenahlovesherself). Colleen, a ballet dancer who struggled in the past with an eating disorder, has more than 11,000 followers and posts unedited images with honest captions advocating for positive body images. Colleen’s account reaches a broad audience, and she mostly receives positive feedback.

“One time I got an email from a mother who has a daughter who is a dancer and struggles with body image. She told me that they look at my account every night and that my pictures and captions have been helping her daughter—that’s why I love this online community. Because I used to be that little girl, and now, in a way, I can help her.”

But why put these stories on social media, you may wonder, and why use Instagram specifically? Emily and Colleen both rely on Instagram’s unique strength—accessibility. Not only is Instagram increasingly popular among teens and young adults, but its ability to filter and promote posts through the hashtag has made accounts like these flourish. Additionally, these accounts capitalize on the positively rated attributes in the Royal Society’s survey, such as self-expression, community building, and emotional support.

To clarify, these accounts are by no means a substitute for professional medical treatment for those who may struggle with mental illness. However, to assume that Instagram is entirely harmful is misguided. Contrary to popular belief, there are many online communities that provide honesty, education and support.

So, whether you (or your child) follow an account for its honest portrayal of life, its witty captions, its artistic pictures, or its inspiring stories about mental illness, make sure that you only follow accounts that are beneficial to your mental health and make you feel good.

Photo collage, top, courtesy of The Invisible Illnesses by Jesse Volk. Photo of Colleen Werner, right, by Ana Murphy.