OPINION: The increasing public sentiment and media reports that logging off social media will solve mental health problems are not only completely unfounded but could actually be damaging.
Decades of research has shown very clearly that mental illness and suicide are extremely complex. Attempting to identify a single cause oversimplifies the nature of mental illness and is a very dangerous path to take.
Those experiencing poor mental health are usually in a vulnerable and sensitive state. The perpetuation of quick fixes may encourage individuals to think they can "snap out of it" and delay seeking clinical care. From here, it can be a slippery slope to feelings of shame, failure and worthlessness at not being "cured" by such simplistic advice.
From a research perspective, the internet and social media have been around long enough for us to examine some of the impacts they have had on the community. Let me say upfront that there is almost no quality scientific evidence showing a direct causal link between social media, suicide and mental illness. The general consensus among both researchers and clinicians globally is that online interactions can actually have a positive impact on those experiencing a mental health problem.
Why is this the case? The internet enables quick and anonymous access to quality information. Social media enables broad dissemination of that information. Reputable mental health organisations such as Black Dog Institute and Beyondblue have large Facebook and Twitter followings and they use these to regularly share helpful and relevant advice. Other organisations, including headspace and SANE, provide online forums where people can obtain more tailored support from clinically qualified moderators. These have been instrumental in increasing emotional support for those who are experiencing a mental illness or caring for another.
The internet is also being used very effectively to provide clinical care. We know that the stigma of mental illness stops people from seeing their GP or psychologist. Australians can now access a range of evidence-based online treatment programs. In most cases, they can be accessed any time, from any device and for free. Even the federal government has endorsed this treatment avenue by funding internet interventions for mental health. Furthermore, the recent mental health reform package includes a centralised online diagnosis and treatment portal. Embracing internet technology will significantly improve our struggling mental health care system.
Online interactions can be just as meaningful as meeting people in person. In some instances, online interactions are even better. As part of our research at the Black Dog Institute, we examined the number of blogs and online forums those with mental illness could visit which provide invaluable comfort and practical and emotional support. Contrary to what some believe, social media can help people connect with others facing similar challenges. We also believe it can help those who feel suicidal to stay connected with carers, clinicians and services.
As a mental health researcher who specialises in social media, I am very aware of the negative interactions that can take place on these sites. But I don't believe the solution is to simply turn off our computers and phones. Instead, we should be working to harness the power of social media to support, treat and save the lives of the four million Australians who experience a mental illness.
Dr Bridianne O'Dea is a mental health researcher at the Black Dog Institute, UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in Fairfax Media.