Culture

Is Social Media The Right Place For Conversations About Serious Mental Health Issues

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Social media platforms have become a place for some big conversations around mental health.

But is that the right platform to be talking about such serious issues? And if so, then what can social media teach mainstream media about how to report on mental health?

Just to let you know we will be talking about mental health and suicide in this story so if that might be a trigger for you, feel free to give this one a miss.

Heaps of people (including celebrities) recently took to their social media accounts to raise awareness about World Suicide Prevention Day and R U OK Day.

Jameela Jamil shared an Instagram post about surviving suicide and Demi Lovato, who’s always been very public about her battle with depression, even dropped a new song about it called Ok Not To Be OK.

Dr. Keith Harris from Charles Sturt University, told me that once someone we look up to starts a conversation about a similar thing we’re going through, we’re more likely to connect and share stories.

Dr. Keith Harris: “When we hear celebrities and role models coming out and saying – ‘I had those struggles, and I did get through it’ – I think that’s a great message. And that was one of the key messages I found in my PHD research.”

Suicide is still the number one leading cause of death for people aged between 15 and 44 in Australia, and awareness campaigns like R U Ok day have been hugely praised for getting people talking about topics like suicide prevention.

But Dr. Harris is always cautious about band aid solutions to larger problems, and stresses that awareness days exist as conversation starters.

KH: “People who are struggling with mental health issues are not going to be cured by a 30 second or, 5 minute conversation. These things need long term care.”

Social media platforms have increasingly become a space for young people to talk more openly about mental health issues, especially suicide, and Dr. Harris thinks that’s only a good thing at a time where talking about things in real life is harder than it’s ever been.

KH: “Face to face, really personal relationships are more important [than social media]. They’re more valuable, they’re more helpful. However, that’s not always possible. And we do have a lot people – a lot of vulnerable people, a lot of at-risk people – who, by preference, stay home alone and [for them] maybe [social media] is their only connection to the world.”

With the pandemic forcing people around the world into isolation, it makes sense that people are finding comfort in online platforms. They don’t involve physically telling your story in front of actual people, and users can easily share, add, and monitor online dialogue as it happens.

Dr. Harris generally finds in his research that when there’s room for more anonymity, researchers get more accurate and honest responses from people, especially if the questions target more stigmatised topics like suicide.

KH: “That bit of distance can just allow people to feel comfortable where they’re sitting.  They feel more relaxed that they can talk about things and they don’t think as much about it.”

Mainstream media has always been limited in reporting on the issue, and Dr Harris believes it’s because there are legitimate concerns about exposing suicidal behaviours.

KH: “When media sensationalises the suicide and when they report the method, that leads to increases in suicide rates.”

Suicide Prevention Australia told me that we all have a role to play in reducing stigma around mental ill-health and suicide, and promoting help-seeking behaviour – and the media’s reporting of suicide should be done responsibly and balanced against the public’s ‘right to know’.

ABC’s Triple J Hack shared useful tips on Instagram detailing how to talk about mental health on R U OK DAY.

Dr. Harris believes that this type of constructive media coverage is really useful, and he wants to see more journalism like this from other Australian media outlets.

The Takeaway

Talking about suicide on social media, if done safely and respectfully, can be really powerful and it’s highlighted what media outlets could be doing on their own huge platforms.

Because even though suicide prevention days only come around once every year, people should be able to talk or read about this important issue on any given day.

HELPLINES:

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800

MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78

Open Arms: 1800 011 046

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467