Is social media getting in the way of your mental health? It’s #timetotalk

March 5, 2020

Katherine McGleenan, suicide prevention lead for North East and North Cumbria at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (CNTW), explains the relationship between internet use and mental illness and how we can harness the power of social media to reinforce positivity

Digital technology, and social media in particular, are increasingly being mentioned as contributing factors to mental health problems, self-harm and even suicide. What’s more is that young people are disproportionately being affected by this.

There is no doubt that modern communications technology has enabled an easier and more prolific spread of information, which has had both positive and negative outcomes when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.

The National Confidential Enquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health (NCISH) has routinely collected data on suicide-related internet use in mental health patients who have taken their own lives since 2011. The data shows that on average, there are 65 suicides per year in patients known to have used the internet in ways that were suicide related. We believe that this figure is likely to be an underestimate.

The NCISH data also shows that the most common type of suicide-related internet use was searching for information on suicide methods. Although patients in this group were more likely to be young, they were diverse in terms of both age and diagnosis. The group was also more often employed and less often living alone.

Although mental health professionals need to be aware that suicide-related internet use is a potential risk for all patients, especially, but not only, younger age groups, it is also important for us all as employers to recognise the need to enquire about online behaviour and the potential risk to themselves and others.

On a more positive note, the widespread coverage of mental health issues in the media and online has helped to reduce some of the stigma. Campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week, #HereForYou, Time To Change and #TimeToTalk have had a huge impact and started a national conversation about mental wellbeing.

Although there is some way to go, social media has been a valuable tool for sharing these key messages and encouraging people to seek help and support when needed – something we have driven forward at the CNTW Trust.

At the trust, we have a huge library of self-help resources and information available on our website, covering issues such as how to be mentally healthy at work, understanding anxiety and panic attacks, and how to cope with loneliness. This means you can access the information you need with the click of a button.

We also advise people to download the NHS App and register their personal information. Doing this means that you can quickly identify symptoms and access medical advice as and when you need it.

Last month, we supported #TimeToTalk Day (February 6) with organisations across the North East, encouraging as many people as possible to open up about their mental health. Organised by Time to Change, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, #TimeToTalk Day was set up to break down barriers and get people talking to each other about their issues.

One in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year, so it’s vital that we do more to address the affects. Technology can play a huge part in this because it makes it easier to check in on people, either by sending a text or sharing positive messages on social media. Emerging technology can play an important role too. For example, the Trust last year led on a new clinical trial testing whether virtual reality (VR) based psychological therapy could help people with severe mental health difficulties. VR gives patients the opportunity to experience places they fear in a virtual environment, allowing them time to learn how to manage their emotions better and become less anxious around others.

We are also actively working with both local and national partners to help develop, enhance and promote the more positive aspects of technology and social media, which can support mental wellbeing and help in the prevention of self-harm and suicide.

Meanwhile, social media companies must be more responsible about the content that is shared on their platforms, particularly in relation to the tragic cases involving young people accessing dangerous materials about suicide online.

Steps are being taken nationally to ensure better regulation of social media platforms, but there is still a huge amount of work to be done in making the internet a safer place, particularly for young people.

New technologies present challenges, as well as opportunities, and the internet and social media are no different. As we sign into Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok or Snapchat, we may be more connected than we ever have been to the world and yet feel increasingly unhappy and isolated at the same time.

At CNTW, we want to make sure that we can support organisations to ensure social media is used to emphasise and disseminate positivity – a place not to retreat from the real world but to help engage more with it.

Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust

North East and Cumbria Suicide Prevention Network

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