Bell Let's Talk: Social media and mental illness


Social media can be an emotional double-edged sword. It can make you feel more connected to people – the ones you love or those you'd like to know – and in tune with what's happening around the world at any given moment. It can also make it easier to ignore the people in front of you, focussing instead on what you're missing out on and how your life pales in comparison to the glamorous, manufactured personas that live online.

And those are common feelings without a mental illness. These advantages and anxieties can become even more amplified for those with mental health issues. Relevant resources and support are a click away. So are hashtags and accounts that encourage dangerous disorders. The Social spoke to two women that have both personal and professional experience with mental illness about how it has shaped their relationship with social media.

As told to Sarah Robinson


“It's equalizing”
Kristen Bellows, 24
Peer-support facilitator, Young Ones Breaking Barriers; Blogger, Pride in Madness

I started using Facebook shortly after it came out. It's been very friend-oriented, but my relationship with social media has definitely expanded since I started using it. Now, I use it as a platform. I'm in charge of promotions for the Young Ones gala in May, so I'm on the Facebook page posting updates and pictures.

Through my blog, I talk to people in the UK, in the United States, in Australia, New Zealand. I get to hear from them and hear what's going on with them and what's going on in their countries. It's overwhelming, but in a really good way. Nothing replaces seeing someone's face. If I could gather up everyone I know in the blogging world and meet them, I would love to do that. But that'd be really expensive, because they're from all over the world.

You develop relationships with the people that are frequently commenting, because in some cases, those people have a secret blog, they don't use their real name. I bare it all on my blog. But other people don't want to lose their jobs, they don't want to lose their friends, they don't want people to know the nitty gritty details of what's going on. So it's cathartic in the sense that even if they're using a fake name, they're still being themselves, maybe even more so online than they can in their everyday life.

I think having social media and the blogging community around when I was younger would've made things easier, because back then, the only people I had to talk to were the ones that were making fun of me. You feel so alone. But now it's different. A couple days ago, I posted a blog about how I hide my scars from self-harming, and I got a bunch of supportive comments. This whole conversation gets going that wouldn't have happened before. Before, it was just, “Why are you showing those? You shouldn't do that.” So I listened. 

"Even if they're using a fake name, they're still being themselves, 
even more than they can be in everyday life."

And if a comment someone makes online upsets me, I don't have to respond. I can walk away, I can think about it and cool down. That can be a huge asset when you have borderline personality disorder, and sometimes have issues with impulse control. Someone said to me once that I shouldn't consider having children or having a family until I've “fixed” myself. And I should stay in therapy for the sake of my future children, because borderline women make horrible mothers. I got to walk away from that comment for a couple of days. Eventually, I came back and just decided to say something along the lines of, “Thank you for your concern. I'll make that decision for myself.” Initially, I just wanted to swear at them. But I don't want to be that person, who acts first and thinks later. It's helpful for me to be able to show myself that I can constructively be upset, because that can apply my life online and offline, as well.

I'm aware that there are people and sites out there that discriminate or marginalize people with mental illness. Everyone has an opinion. Obviously, social media and the Internet don't discriminate about who gets to say what. But I can also use that to my advantage. I can write a response. The people who hate me get to say what they want, but so do I. It's equalizing.

Social media helps in getting resources and recovery tools out, too. Not everyone wants to go to the library and sign out a book on self-harm or eating disorders, or they wouldn't know what to Google. Some people might find it to be backwards, but keeping it to yourself for a while and connecting with people that don't know you is a much less scary way to start tackling it than telling the people you're close to.


“It can be a trigger”
Jessica Cockerill, 25
Coordinator, Consumer/Survivor Network, Friends & Advocates Peel

I started using social media around six years ago, when I was 17. My first experiences were not the best. When you're already trying to create an identity in our world, trying to capture that and portray all that on social media is really hard. It's even harder when people are putting up their identity in the best possible light that they can, and you feel like you have to try to compete with that. Emotionally, it was hard. When I was 17, I was already starting to experience some mental health issues. Anxiety was bad. Social situations were scary.

I got Facebook originally because of peer pressure. My boyfriend actually signed me up for Facebook, and I didn't even want it. But a lot of things started revolving around Facebook invites or funny statuses, a lot of things that people would bring into reality. You feel so socially isolated if you're not a part of it. If they can't access you online, you don't exist to them. That can be really dangerous for someone who's already feeling isolated.

A lot of times, I just tried to avoid social media. Or tried to create things that I thought others would like or appreciate. You're not really connecting with the real you, you just want to put up the nicest, hottest picture you can find that will compete with someone else's seemingly exciting life. It took a long time to realize and understand that other people are creating their image and identity, too. You really don't know what their life is like. But it puts out this unrealistic expectation that our lives are not good enough for other people.

"If they can't access you online, you don't exist. 
That can be really dangerous when you're already isolated."

I think it can be a trigger for people with mental illnesses. One of the most common things with mental illness is that your perception is wrong, so it's very easy to let your anxiety take over your feelings and perpetuate unhealthy thoughts like, “They went out partying without me, that means they don't like me. I'm not worthy and no one wants to be my friend, so why am I even here?” It can really worsen some of the mental health feelings and symptoms.

Then you have social media accounts and hashtags that encourage self-harm and eating disorders. Working in the mental health field, I can see why those are very, very dangerous. When things are encouraging poor coping mechanisms and there's no one there saying, “You should ask for help, let me see what I can do,” people are only saying, “Yeah, go for it,” it's really easy to take those people's advice and go along with it than to hear the hard truth, which is that you need help.

Now, I really only use social media to read about things that are going on in the world, or for professional reasons. I connect my life with other people's. I've stuck to the platforms that I feel the safest in, Facebook and Instagram. I used to feel like I was missing out when I was younger. But once you're okay in your real life, you can forget about missing some things online, because that doesn't make or break my identity.

For the most part, I think if the proper ownership and responsibility is taken with social media, it can be a great thing, but the lack of compassion and responsibility people have, and ownership people take over what they put out on social media is what really can destroy people's mental health. Be critical of what you read and who's posting it, who it's meant for and what the overall message is.

Let's keep talking! Bell will donate 5¢ more to mental health initiatives for every text message and mobile/long distance call made by a Bell customer. Not with Bell? You can still contribute! Tweet with the hashtag #BellLets Talk or share our Bell Let's Talk image on Facebook

Visit the Bell's Let's Talk website for information on resources and helpful links relating to mental health. 

Test your knowledge with our mental health quiz.
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