Why Celebrities And Crying Selfies on Instagram Will Not Save Our Mental Health Crisis

BY HANNAH LA RONDE

“Social media is not real. For anyone struggling, please remember that.” Supermodel, Bella Hadid shared this caption with her 43 million followers underneath a carousel of crying selfies. These photos were her unguarded, true emotions. They were how Bella was feeling and struggling in her real life. She added “’I’ve had enough breakdowns and burnouts to know this: if you work hard enough on yourself, spending time alone to understand your traumas , triggers, joys, and routine, you will always be able to understand or learn more about your own pain and how to handle it.”

Bella’s words received praise across social media platforms and large publications. Many were praising her vulnerability and openness; a quality we’re finding increasingly difficult to navigate offline.

For many of us, social media has become the emotional centre of our lives; the medium for sharing our mental health struggles that are too difficult to express in real life. When we post our feelings on social media, we believe we are expressing ourselves fully to the world; we convince ourselves that we’ve done the difficult work of sharing our deepest wounds with others. A tweet, TikTok video or Instagram post forms the complex reality of who we are and what we are going through. We believe we understand a person’s pain through this communication, even if they are a stranger. We act as if this experience equates to real life.

Thousands claim Bella’s honesty had made them feel less alone. Her message exuded the sentiment “we’re all in this together”, even if our class, race and privilege differ exponentially to the person sharing their story. Social media seems to smooth over these social differences. Some believe it is the only place to find a mirror of their personal life; endless streams of tweets, Instagram posts and TikTok videos discussing the struggles of mental health and the difficulties faced in everyday life no one addresses offline. This acts as a source of comfort for those who may feel alone in the world. It offers them community and support that may be impossible to find elsewhere.

It is a wonder what part of our humanity is lost through this online medium; who we become to ourselves and others. We know our compassion and empathy decrease when we send heart emojis to express our love and support for friends and strangers going through a mental health crisis. It is undeniable that a phone call to a friend is more valuable than a text. When we speak on the phone, we hear the pain and concern in each other’s voices. It teaches both parties to empathise and understand the appropriate communication during difficult moments of life. But as Sherry Turkle writes in Reclaiming Conversation, “we’d rather text than talk” and texting does not encompass the humanity and compassion we gain through in-person conversation.

If we are honest about our needs, social media is not a replacement for the adequate care and resources people require to recover from mental illness and flourish in their lives. Despite growing numbers of young people turning to technology for help, child and adolescent mental health services have seen a dramatic increase in referrals. In particular, eating disorders have skyrocketed. Yet, healthcare services continue to be underfunded and understaffed, with long waiting lists, making it impossible to meet the demands of a mental health epidemic. When some of us visit our doctors, stressed and anxious, sometimes on the verge of breakdown, we are encouraged to download apps, such as Headspace, as if this was akin to in-person therapy or treatment. In desperate times and emergencies, some have been told they aren’t “suicidal enough” to be helped.

When people in power neglect the foundation of mental health care in their communities, every person suffers; care workers are “overworked, overstaffed, demoralised”, and too busy to provide the adequate service needed for their patients. Many are so undervalued and burnt out, they have to make the difficult decision of leaving their positions. Perhaps if staff were paid above the minimum wage and were treated with care and respect, public health would not be so chronically understaffed. Patients left with inadequate care can only lead to a deterioration of their health, putting their lives at dangerous risk. Families of patients having to deal with this pain and trauma are vulnerable to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. This destructive cycle is pervasive and endless if nothing is done to change it.

I read a heartfelt article about a woman in the UK whose daughter had suffered from an eating disorder. After months on the waiting list and watching the deterioration of her 13-year old daughter’s mental health, she was sent 300 miles away from her home for treatment, far from the place she felt most safe. Her mother elaborates “The pain and anguish caused by repeated separations from my daughter, latterly over 300 miles from our home, led me to develop an addiction to prescription sleeping medication, which ultimately required an emergency admission to an acute mental health ward. I often reflect how different the past few years would have been for our family had my daughter been able to access the care she needed, early on and while remaining at home with support from her family.”

The reality of our mental health crisis bears no resemblance to social media platforms that erase part of the human story, where influencers and celebrities that are not licensed professionals advise us on what to do about mental illnesses that plague our lives. We are delivered the illusion that such words and online engagement can save us, whilst the algorithmic loop of content keeps us shrouded in mental illness, going as far as to sell us merchandise. Our poor collective health becomes a commodity or trend in the digital space, leading us to an uncomfortable acceptance in the real world.

Discussion and cultural awareness on social media is important, but it can only go so far. It is telling that we still turn to these platforms for our catharsis despite receiving countless warnings about the implications of social media platforms - to name a few, Instagram exacerbating body image issues for one in three girls; 13% of users in the UK reporting suicidal thoughts linking them back to social media; the manipulative and addictive nature of social media that keeps us hooked for profit; the buying and selling of data without our consent.

Though social media may be a place to express ourselves and begin the conversation, it does not have the necessary expertise, resources and humanity that lead to recovery. Instead, there is an urgent need for funding to support the growing demand for mental health care and a compassionate model in our health system that puts patient’s care first. Every person should have equal access to the appropriate support required for recovery; this extends to those working and caring for patients. Such changes can be the difference between life and death.