It has been reported that behavioural psychologist Sean Young sees a future where a program is ‘trained’ to think like a psychologist in order to screen the social media accounts of individuals, assessing them for text or image patterns and combinations which could signify depression or other mental health illness.

The theory is that whilst doctors can only currently study physiological symptoms of their patients during appointments, with a quick assessment of psychological state at that exact moment in time, involving analysis of patients’ social media accounts between appointments will provide psychological data from patients outside of the healthcare setting. The monitoring of patients after a spell of deep depression or a suicide attempt, for example, would be very useful. Can this approach really work though?

Social media and the truth

Sean Young says:

[People] share openly on Facebook and elsewhere about their feelings, their plans to do healthy things like exercise, and their intentions to do unhealthy things like use drugs.

The ‘perfect life’

Whilst Young seems content with believing the concept of everyone sharing their innermost thoughts on social media, this simply isn’t true. People often use their social media accounts to present the ‘best’ version of themselves – the version they want the world to see.

Whilst some people are happy to share details of their mental health, and some social media accounts exist purely to openly share heartfelt mental health updates (such as Melissa Broder’s @sosadtoday account on Twitter), not everyone feels as comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings in such a way.

Facebook and Instagram in particular are platforms on which people can become desperate to portray the ‘perfect’ life, and for some who have done this, it has impacted negatively on their mental health as a result. This can also exasperate any underlying issues, which is what happened to popular Instagrammer Essena O’Neill in 2015. She said:

Online it looked like I had the perfect life … yet I was so completely lonely and miserable inside.

Research also suggests that the more time you spend on Facebook, the lower your mood. This is because it feels like a waste of time and rather meaningless. There has also been findings from various studies which indicate that Facebook can cause anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem. If that is the case, should doctors be encouraging people to interact on social media when it can make them feel worse? More intensive research would need to be done on these big claims; after all, if social media does make us feel depressed, why are we all so hooked on it?

Mental health discrimination

Time to Change, a campaign led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, was set up in 2007 to encourage people to talk about their mental health without fear of discrimination. In fact, almost nine out of ten people living with a mental illness say they face stigma and discrimination (87%), so it is no wonder people may not be keen to broadcast their condition or symptoms. With discrimination being such a big problem, this will no doubt be another reason people may not be keen to share their true feelings on social media.

Other potential issues

What if an individual uses some negative words on Facebook or Twitter, but as a quote, a share, or a retweet? Would the system recognise that, or would an urgent response be triggered? How about if a usually prolific social media user goes quiet for a long period of time? Some people simply might not want their social media monitoring by strangers. There are many potential problems… I won’t go into them all here.

As Young himself points out in his original article, the main problem with monitoring social media for poor mental health is, who is to then follow up on any alerts? Doctors have no time to do such tasks.

I agree that the monitoring and treatment of mental health issues in the UK needs to be improved upon, however I’m not convinced social media is the answer with its inherent issues of misrepresentation and the fear of discrimination. Some people do share everything online, but there are also many who don’t, so whilst people who are willing to ‘bear all’ in a truthful way online would benefit, for others this concept would make no difference.

Featured image credit: AntonioGuillem