For our Thursday blogger spotlight this week we’ve touched base with Dr Emma Hepburn @thepsychologymum and Dr Emma Svanberg @mumologist – both clinical psychologists who are crushing it on Instagram with their talented approach at opening up and discussing the topic of mental health.
Emma and Emma want to discuss mental health, specifically how the online world affects and impacts mental health…we hope you enjoy their interview!
- What are the pros of the increase in talking about mental health online?
Emma S: This is a great question and something I’ve considered a lot lately (and discussed at length with Emma H). While talking about mental health online might be a relatively new thing, actually in many ways it’s just a form of peer support – something that is often very helpful ‘in real life’. I had a look at some of the research on sharing of mental health experiences online and found a 2013 study (Naslund et al) which suggested that people find these experiences largely positive. In fact, social media can really fill a gap which doesn’t exist elsewhere- people are much more likely to reach out (either by reading others’ experiences or sharing their own) when they are feeling particularly vulnerable or isolated. In that way, such online sharing might offer support to people who may not otherwise have access to help. Some people also learn about what services are available to them by speaking to people online, helping them access support or just demystify mental health services and therapy.
Emma H: Talking about mental health can help normalise this and reduces the stigma attached to experiencing a mental health condition. Often people have a sense of shame about feeling a particular way, which can make them feel different and isolated. Seeing that other people are experiencing similar difficulties and it is not only them that feels this way can help reduce this shame. Hearing about other people’s experiences may also encourage people to open up about their own experiences and encourage them to seek the help and advice they require.
Emma S: I agree it also does a huge amount to reduce stigma. In the time that I’ve been talking about perinatal mental health online (about 7 years now), I’ve seen a huge increase in awareness about common mental health problems in parents- I think much of that is due to the many people who talk openly about the down days as well as the upsides of parenting. There’s a feeling of anonymity on social media which means people seem to feel more comfortable sharing ideas or experiences.
Emma H: An increasing amount of professionals are also talking about mental health online, which can increase knowledge about mental health and evidence based treatment, how to access these and demystify what goes on in a therapy room. This can help remove barriers to treatment and increase confidence in accessing appropriate treatments.
Emma S: Yes and there is also an increasing number of mental health professionals online who answer common questions – like what kind of therapies are available, what kind of questions can you ask your GP, what you can expect from services. This kind of knowledge can really empower people to make sure they get the help they need, and who to speak to if they don’t.
Emma H: I think social media and the internet can also be used to increase knowledge and awareness of issues, and this can reach a lots of people. For example, I recently started a campaign highlighting the importance of dads’ mental health, which resulted in lots of dads speaking about their mental health and has also led to some great connections and plans for how to take this forward in the future.
Emma S: Absolutely, there’s a beautiful ‘power of the people’ feeling on social media. Campaigns which start off as posts on Instagram can become powerful sources of change. My Make Birth Better campaign began as a post and has now grown to a website, a meeting with the Shadow Health secretary and to linking up with Dr Rebecca Moore to form the Make Birth Better network (with nearly 50 other professionals and parents with lived experience). The Pelvic Floor Patrol, again starting from a group of women on Instagram, recently met with Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies to talk about improving access to women’s health Physiotherapy for women after birth. Social media can connect us in a really positive way.
- And what are the cons?
Emma H: Opening up about your own experiences online may result in judgement about this, which is an inevitable risk of the online world. This can be stressful and may result in difficult emotions. In addition, other people may want to share their experiences with you, which could be stressful if you are not sure how to deal with this or they are telling you about difficult life events, which could trigger difficult emotions for you.
Emma S: Just as Emma H said, social media essentially is a public forum and you never know who will respond to your posts. The anonymity which makes people feel comfortable sharing sadly also makes people feel comfortable saying highly critical or damaging things. It also really polarises people, things get very black and white. So nuanced debate can be tricky!
Emma H: There is also a lot of misinformation out there, presented as fact. People can become advocates of what they found helpful and assume this will work for everybody, when in fact mental health interventions are highly individualised according to need. Sometimes people who are not trained to do so give personalised advice which may be unhelpful or even damaging in some instances.
Emma S: You also don’t really know how qualified someone is to give you advice, or information. Occasionally I’ve seen suggestions that I feel could be quite harmful. It makes me think about our role as professionals on there- and what we might be able to do to influence safety. Many peer support groups have guidelines, such as don’t give advice, make sure you know of services that you can highlight to people- I’d love to see something like that on social media too.
It has also demonstrated to me how patchy services are around the country. I might write something about what a mum in London should expect from her local Talking therapies service, for example, but then get a message from someone who was told their service had a huge waiting list, or was told they didn’t meet criteria for therapy.
- As mental health professionals, what’s your view of people blogging about their mental health?
Emma S: I think it’s great. Anything that reduces stigma is helpful in my eyes. It can be very empowering, and reduces isolation when you know that others are going through similar experiences. My only concern would be regarding sites which normalise behaviours which can be harmful- such as pro-eating disorder or self harm sites. But perhaps some people also find these helpful too. I occasionally feel concerned too when I see someone blogging when they’re feeling in crisis- in case they get a negative response or even no response which could feel just as bad.
Emma M: I think it’s still relatively new area and we are still earning about potential benefits and pitfalls about doing so. I think speaking about mental health can have potential benefits for the individual and bring about wider societal attitude changes. However my concern would be when people start blogging about their experiences without fully thinking about or being aware of the potential risks, particularly if they are feeling vulnerable. The impact of experiencing the more negative aspects of the online world could potentially be detrimental to mental health and therefore In some cases I think the impact of opening up online could be unhelpful for the individual involved. You have to be resilient to deal with some of the challenges of the online world, and this might be more difficult if you are currently struggling with your mental health. For these reasons I think you need to carefully consider when you do choose to share your experiences, and ensure you are supported to deal with any of the potential online risks, such as dealing with trolls or feeling shamed or overwhelmed by the interactions resulting from your posts.
- Have you seen examples of help/harm?
Emma H: Both. I’ve seen people targeted on mental health pages both when posting about their own mental health or when voicing their opinion which differs from that posted, which could be detrimental to that person’s own mental health. I have also seen judgements being made about people when they have shared their treatment choices. Many people talk about how comparison online can make them feel inadequate and of course social media in itself can be addictive, and may in itself have a negative impact on mental health.
I have also seen many helpful examples when people have felt supported going through a difficult time, or been supported to seek help. There are also multiple real life supportive networks which have resulted from initial online interactions.
Emma S: Yes. Many examples of help, people feeling hugely supported by others, accessing services in real life which they didn’t know about, lots of realisation that what they’re going through is not unusual. Less examples of harm, as we discussed before- but I have seen people being targeted for a difference of opinion or perceived criticism. I think there is also a tendency to only share that which is palatable- it is still social media and I have had feedback from some people who feel only mild to moderate mental health difficulties are ‘acceptable’. For those who have more acute or long standing mental health problems I do wonder if this could actually increase feelings of stigma.
In many ways, it’s just about being thoughtful- in ways we would hopefully be in real life. Thinking before posting a post or a comment, how that might be perceived by people with different backgrounds and experiences.
A huge thank you to Emma and Emma for their insightful, intelligent and utterly inspiring words on such an important topic for bloggers and non-bloggers alike!
Dr Emma Hepburn is also a Clinical Psychologist who focuses on evidence base mental health, she has been instrumental in founding and growing the #thereforhim campaign on Instagram. A campaign that works to highlight the mental health pressures for dads throughout the UK.
Chat to her on Instagram.