Mental health

Sharing stories of depression online can be problematic as well as beneficial

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You may or may not have heard of the term sadfishing, but you would almost certainly recognise it if you saw it. 

Sadfishing, a word which The Guardian describes as typically mocking in its usage, is a phenomenon whereby (usually young) people post about the problems and sadnesses they may be experiencing on social media, sometimes exaggerating them, seemingly in search of sympathy. 

The somewhat derisive name took off after accusations that celebrities such as Kendall Jenner were exploiting the online followings they had in order to gain attention and followers. These celebrities stand accused of playing up their problems for pure commercial gain (and perhaps also to feed their narcissism).

But recently, warnings have been issued suggesting that young people have been influenced by this celebrity ‘trend’, and are increasingly posting about their problems on social media. School headteachers have largely taken a critical stance on the phenomenon, arguing that it actually exacerbates problems for many young people, and leaves some vulnerable to abuse or exploitation.

In light of these reports, Frances Ryan for The Guardian has made a case in favour of sadfishing, noting that in an era where mental health services are being cut, it is not fair to criticise those who open up and talk about their feelings in possibly the only medium they may have to do so.

And indeed, consulting a broad online community can certainly be helpful for many people. After all, countless charitable initiatives exist whose main function is to encourage individuals to discuss their mental health. Mocking sadfishing is thus counterproductive to these aims, and sends a message to those who discuss their feelings online that their comments are neither welcome nor cared about.

But this issue is not really so clear-cut. While there is no doubt that we should be encouraging people to be open about their mental health, revealing a great deal about oneself and ones emotions on social media may not be the best way to go about it. 

Social media as a whole is often viewed with a lot of suspicion. Many studies have suggested that the use of social media correlates to an increased risk of mental health problems, and it has long been seen as a cause of unhappiness in young people. Social media is also heavily associated with disingenuousness; it has helped to speed up the dissemination of ‘fake news’ and rumours and is also seen as a means by which people present falsified versions of their existence. The reputation of social media as a vehicle for sharing information is thus significantly tarnished by these associations.

So when a person uses a medium which is viewed with a level of scepticism to express sentiments that may be truly sincere, their revelations are inevitably affected by their mode of conveyance. 

And while it can be argued that people should be more accepting of those who share their emotions online, this narrative runs counter to the necessary caution that many of us are told to adopt when coming across new material in the social media sphere. Young people in particular are warned not to believe that the airbrushed models and glamorous lives they see splashed across instagram are real. If people are told that cynicism is healthy when surveying others’ social media outputs, then it is natural that even genuine sadness might be seen as exaggeration or falsehood. 

And when that happens, true distress can go unnoticed amongst the definite manipulations of truth that facebook and co play host to. People who are vulnerable are likely to be grouped with attention-seekers, and their problems are may not see appropriate redress. Even a psychiatrist browsing through facebook is not constantly acting in a professional capacity. Before finding help, a vulnerable person might instead encounter disbelief, derision, or even misleading and potentially dangerous advice. We must remember that while everyone is entitled to be open about their problems, this does not mean everyone is qualified to help.

There are indeed positive aspects to online communities which share their problems or open up about their mental health; but the way that these communities exist in such an unvetted space means that they can be easily infiltrated not just by those with unpleasant motives, but also by people for whom being in those spaces is not necessarily a good idea. We know that such things as ‘suicide clusters’ exist, where one suicide may spark several ‘copycat’ occurrences, and detailed reporting recommendations exist for how the media should portray suicides.

The way that news of one suicide can perpetuate other acts implies that the way depression or anxiety is portrayed can give rise to imitative symptoms in others. Online communities sharing issues may create something of a snowball effect, where as problems are discussed and exchanged, they become bigger and more widespread. User-generated content on online forums and social media lacks regulation in a way that the treatment of mental health issues really should not. Even if a person manages to find what they think is a safe haven online to share their issues, it may be far more damaging than first meets the eye.

And there is another, significant issue with communities that form around those who share their experiences of sadness or depression: exclusion. For just as those who feel enabled to share their stories online may experience rebuttals, where they find acceptance, other sufferers may feel out of place or as though their feelings are unimportant.

For example, we know that certain behaviours like self-harm can be glamourised through social media. Not only is this likely to push people towards self-harm, but it also presents one form of suffering as legitimate above all others. Tumblr was once notorious for featuring user-generated content which depicted self-harm. Individuals would blog and discuss their experiences, sometimes including graphic photos, and often focusing on very specific acts like cutting oneself. 

But that is far from the only type of self-harm that exists, and nor is self-harm the only way of experiencing depression. Those who do not fall into the categories of poor mental health depicted online may begin to feel (and may also be told by others) that their experience of depression is invalid. Simply by not being vocal, or not feeling able to share their experiences, certain individuals may become alienated by this culture of sharing all with all. 

That is not to say that those who share their problems online are in the wrong; far from it. It is simply an observation that all the material we see online relating to mental health creates a narrative and a lens through which society perceives such issues. 

So whilst it is impossible to be categorical about sadfishing, it is important to remember that while it may help some, the practice is unlikely to be safe in the long term. It’s not about attention-seeking or social media spam – the issue is about how mental health ‘treatments’ are evolving with modern times. The makeshift form of the internet simply will not do as a solution.

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