Mental health talks were something of a taboo subject before the recent pandemic of COVID-19. With lockdowns that started in early 2020, society across the world began to take notice of how isolation affects the psyche, further affecting mental health of millions of people. But the question remains how, exactly, did social media change how we talked about mental health. Let’s take a dive in and see what we can find.
As we have known for years, the internet is a vast, infinite place that makes communication possible across miles and miles. Distant relatives can speak to each other in real-time while simultaneously seeing each other with cool apps like Apple’s FaceTime or Google Duo. With a simple connection to the internet, the possibilities of communication are endless. Then a few more years into the 2000s, we discovered another way to stay in touch with family and friends through websites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and so many more. Throughout time, we figured out ways to use social media to advocate for charities, raise awareness for diseases and disorders, and network for careers and connections. However, one thing that never really made big until recent years was mental health. Why is that?
Over time and my own experience with mental health struggles, I noticed how people never really opened up the topic of mental health or mental illness on a normal basis. Schools rarely touched base on bullying (until recent years) which plays a major factor in mental illness as well. It was such a taboo topic. I mean, some people experienced decent communication but most of the time, mental health was only important if you were “crazy” or “unstable”. The only time you knew of mental health programs were if you, yourself, landed in a psychiatric ward and had to resume outpatient therapy.
We’ve been through pandemics before, but nothing at this scale. In 2009, we briefly encountered H1N1 or the Swine Flu. Vaguely, I remember that being considered a pandemic but it was quickly handled and never turned into a situation that warranted closing borders and initiating curfews. Before 2009, we had the Bird Flu or the Avian Influenza, which again, never warranted the world shutting down.
So how did mental health start becoming such a popular topic during the COVID-19 pandemic?
To understand how social media has affected mental health talks during the pandemic, we have to know where we were as far as mental health statistics before the pandemic. In 2019, suicide accounted for 1.3% of all deaths worldwide, making it the 17th leading cause of death- according to the World Health Organization. The statistics are incomplete on 2021’s numbers, but we have an interview in 2021 regarding the numbers for 2020 amidst the pandemic. According to Sally Curtin, a statistician with NCHS, 2018 and 2019 showed a decline in suicide rates that carried into 2020 within the United States. The number of suicides declined by 3% from 2019 as well as the number per 100,000 people also declined by 3%. However, although the number of suicides decreases, the risk factors for suicide present an increase in 2020. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are a few to be named that we saw a rise. So how did the suicide rates not go up?
Within the same interview with Curtin, we find out that calls to the hotlines went up by about 800%. People were reaching out for help. You can read the transcript and listen to the interview here. You can read the report in PDF format here.
With social media platforms progressively finding more ways for people to connect and network, it made it easier to advocate for things like mental health and the struggles that sometimes accompany it. With the years of social media’s existence, millions (or billions) of people are online, so spreading a message can be as effortless as typing a post and publishing it on your social media page (or even by making a video and posting that). We started seeing more people opening up about their own struggles, more people being honest with the raw emotions caused by isolation and quarantine. The destigmatization started. I believe there’s a saying about there being power in numbers, and that’s exactly what happened here. More and more people started to come out about their own experiences which opened up those lines of communication so more people can relate and share. That’s why the rates seemingly continued to decline from 2019.
Ultimately, you must reach out for help if you feel you can’t do it anymore. I know that some problems can’t be solved immediately, but telling someone about the things you feel is a much better start than dwelling alone.