Social media and the trivialisation of mental health issue

I struggle to remember life before the QWERTY keypad. I received my first mobile phone as a 10th birthday present and other parents thought mine were crazy. Texting was a big deal in 2000; I tried to get the hang of 'written calls’ on my Nokia 5110 but didn’t really have anyone to text. If I were a child today, I would likely have a host of friends to text and access to the same websites I do as an adult. Mobile first design has changed the way we browse and video can now be streamed with ease in the hands of toddlers. Technology has changed the way we communicate, interact and handle emotion. Children of primary school age are on Facebook, unknowingly shaping their minds towards certain behaviours. Whether we admit it or not, we believe what we are told by the media giants. In a society where The Daily Mail is the nation’s sweetheart, university fees push £10k a year and the average first time buyer receives their keys past 30: it’s hard to admit anything other than media infatuation. Our thoughts are more exposed than ever before, yet capped at 140 characters as a result of digital normalisation. We exchange data with people we haven't spoken to in a decade as strangers build a representation of a person they would otherwise have forgotten about. For the ‘socially vocal’ each activity, mood and crisis is both shared with your network and tracked for retargeting by the digital giants. The introduction of social media has encouraged mass sharing of data and never has it been simpler to update 95% of people you know and (potentially) the rest of the world of a ‘life event’. Personalisation now takes the form of targeted marketing to encourage the consumer to spend their time on products and not people. As a digital marketer myself never has data been so accessible, the limit of personalisation so unclear and the consumer so oblivious. Data sharing and distribution has introduced oxymoronic symptoms. On one hand you have an increased risk of identity fraud, security breach and activity tracking. And on the other you have viral marketing technique and an increased awareness of formally taboo subject matter.

Never before has mental health been as widely publicised as it is in the modern day. Former taboos have embedded daily conversation as we overhear infidelity, mental instability and loss. This acceptance may have been enhanced by digital communication but the conversational traits continue offline. Personal conversations are discussed so publicly that voyeurism is now unavoidable.

With the acceptance of mental health issues we also have those sensationalising mental illnesses for attention. ‘Anxiety’, ‘depression’ and ‘panic attack’ are frequently added to social updates to describe minor sadness. For a sufferer of panic attacks, the term can’t be trivialised to a social status. We see people speak about 'depression' as a consequence of not being able to afford a new pair of shoes. Trivialising mental illness will eventually build a ‘cry wolf’ society with little tolerance for those suffering with genuine psychological issues. Mental health awareness has come such a long way towards disassociating with its former stigma and we are now at risk of reversing that success. Legislation to support sufferers of mental illness at a national level signals a positive shift towards social acceptance as universities begin to increase attention towards the mental wellbeing of students. Support for mental health issues should be readily available with particular emphasis on individuals experiencing change or hardship. Universities were late to address increasing levels of stress, mental instability and depression and improvements were long overdue. Whilst budgeting will always be an issue, the minds we are concerned with are the future of industry, academia and nurture. Support is far from sufficient for the generation we are asking to fix the mistakes of those before them. Academic and financial pressure on the modern teenager (combined with an anxiety for what the future will look like) suggests that we are majorly underinvesting in the minds that are expected to fix the world we live in. Scrimping on mental health support with not only manifest in lasting damage to fix later but will be accompanied with a higher cost. In place of accepting a laissez faire attitude for pastoral education, we should be preparing students with techniques to assist in times of mental unrest. The current British education system does little to prepare students for a life past formal education as those following onto university are expected to make domestic mistakes in student halls and house shares. It is a tall order to expect young minds to hold up under the strain of new living arrangements and academic pressure. Whilst some schools focus on home economics and mathematics for ‘life outside of the classroom’, many fall short in applied skills for domestic living. At age 14 I was familiar with trigonometry, complex fractions and could recite Pythagoras’ theorem; however, I wasn’t familiar with the process for paying an electricity bill. The increase of payday lenders (and borrowers) suggests a widespread issue with the management of personal finance. Maths lessons should be focussing on applied skills to educate school leavers on the management of credit, debit and scoring. We can educate students to the nth degree but if there is an underlying lack of life skills, we are going to end up with a weak workforce.

Failure to manage debt is a common trigger for mental health issues and an area we could actively work on to prevent mental hardship. There is often a trigger for sufferers of mental health issues; financial troubles, poor self image, academic pressure, stress at work or home to name a few. We could be teaching students the necessary skills to manage these issues before they become a significant concern for mental wellbeing. There are always going to be areas that an outside influence can do little about but that is not to say that we shouldn’t be offering coping mechanisms for the areas that can be influenced. Modern life is hard and people can be easily forgiven for making mistakes, it’s learning how to cope with the consequence of error and hardship that offers long-term results.

Social media is a highly intelligent technology but a potential threat to the future of mental wellbeing. When people are using Facebook to trivialise mental illness, those suffering feel further isolated as individuals. Promoting the most glamorous 10% of our existence does little to comfort those struggling through the lowest 10% of theirs. We have become accustomed to promoting the image we want to project and that is rarely the one we live with on a daily basis. Social media should be used to promote social improvement but is instead feeding the message of media giants and their avid consumers. Facebook's 'mood experiment' saw the company under fire for manipulating user's news feeds towards positive or negative statuses. The experiment on almost 700,000 users "tailored newsfeeds to positive and negative content and monitored how it affected those users’ own updates." Natasha Clark from The Guardian made a good analysis of the situation: "Arguably, the Facebook mood experiment – and subsequent furore over how it uses data collected from its Messenger app – broke the data/desire trade-off: Facebook users didn’t gain anything from it, no personalised content, no additional benefits or information. They felt used." What Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg also failed to address in her apology after the 'experiment', is the effects this experiment may have had on its participants mental health. It's all well and good for Facebook to track how happy/sad it's users are when emotionally bias statuses are shown but could this 'experiment' have any effect on the user's day, their relationships and their activities? Social platforms are monitoring data all the time to build user profiles and as a marketer I am in support of building a representation of your target personas; however, the Facebook 'experiment' was merely an example of power for power's sake.

We have the highest awareness of mental health in history, possibly due to the increase in patients recorded to have a form of mental disability. This increase in visibility is an opportune moment to publicise coping mechanisms for anxiety, stress and depression. Social anxiety continues to rise as a consequence of increased mental strain, signalling an increase in those actively seeking help. We have made good progress towards collapsing the taboo, sourcing an obtainable system for preventative care seems an essential next step. Social media should be a source of recreation, not mental strain. Mental health charities are doing what they can to advertise against the strain on social platforms but it is time those with the funds to make a significant difference to step up. Because, if we don’t intervene soon those with the funds won't have the minds.