When you're having a crappy day and you post about it on social media, you're likely to receive at least a heart emoji from friends. When someone posts about chronic experiences of depression, or being in a mental health crisis, they'll might also get likes of affirmation. These supportive messages, though, don't necessarily translate into real-life help when you post about depression on social media.
"Some people may be supported by their networks when they post about mental health on social media; others, not so much," says Ashley Womble, MPH, head of communications at Crisis Text Line, a free 24/7 text messaging service for people in crisis. Providing effective help to your friends can be tricky, especially when mental health stigma drives people to not to share their experiences with depression, or do so in indirect ways.
According to a recent study published in the journal JMIR Research Protocols, when college students post about their depression on Facebook, about 35% of responses offered a gesture, like assurances that everything will be alright. Another 19% asked the poster what was wrong, a response that posters found distinctly unhelpful because it made them feel they weren't being heard or understood. This data raises the question: how do you help when someone's posting about their mental health?
According to a recent report by Crisis Text Line on the state of mental health in the United States, stigma presents one of the largest barriers to people wanting to reach out for support. The report found that people would often tried to signal a mental health crisis in Crisis Text Line conversations with a crying face or pill emoji, rather than saying "suicide" directly.
The JMIR Research Protocols study drew similar conclusions as the Crisis Text Line report, finding that 15% of people posting about feeling depressed on social media do so through song lyrics, while another 10% communicate their depression through quotes or emojis. Because of how indirect this kind of language was, the study found, people's Facebook friends often didn't encourage them to get help — because they couldn't tell what the poster's subtext was.
More understanding of mental health warning signs — like feeling excessively sad or fearful, having intense mood changes, or avoiding friends, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) — can help people recognize when and how they should encourage their friends to seek professional or trained peer support for their mental health. When you want to help your friends, Womble says that it's best not to assume that someone will ask for help directly if they need it and instead be proactive about offering assistance. Womble tells Bustle that more than half of the people who text the Crisis Text Line wind up telling counselors something they've never told anyone before. This means that assuming you know everything that's going on for your friends may not be helpful.
If you're unsure what else to do for your friend, Womble says it's OK to ask. "It's really important to ask someone if they are struggling. If you ask, instead of waiting for them to come to you, it gives the person permission to say, 'Yeah, I am hurting and I need support.'"
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Cash, C. (2020) What college students post about depression on Facebook and the support they perceive: A content analysis. JMIR Research Protocols, https://preprints.jmir.org/preprint/13650/accepted.
Ashley Womble, MPH, head of communications at Crisis Text Line