• Scott

Social media and mental health

This week, David Cole uses his personal interaction with a severely mentally ill woman from his past to offer an interesting insight:

In the article, he offers the story of a woman he once, we'll use the euphemism "dated," and her descent into schizophrenia as a spring board to discuss a possible aggregate effect of social media/social justice swarms on folks who might otherwise be anonymous to the world. He points to the example of a New Zealander of Korean descent whose ranting tweet about a "racist" Burger King commercial went viral. The individual in question, a concert pianist later appears to soulfully regret ever having made the tweet in the first place. Cole levels the charge against the commercially motivated agitators that they should have known better based on her previous tweets.

You see, in the weeks leading up to the tweet that made her famous, it appears she was adjusting to a new psychotropic medication regimen. In fact, although it would be unethical for me to diagnose someone without personally evaluating them, the difference in her demanor online over a period of a few weeks is striking. Her prior tweets about race relations have a cartoonish "gangsta" quality to them with the slang venacular and in-your-face style. Not exactly the way I would think a concert pianist would even talk. Later, after the internet firestorm, her writing sounds thoughtful, and almost rational/instrospective. Its almost like the dual effect of 1. the stress of the situation and 2. the medications taking effect and stabliizing produced an entirely different person.

Cole is making a point that appears along a very thin margin of socio-political thought (that I happen to agree with) and that is the purpose of his article. But what, if anything, can be extrapolated in the broader field of mental health from such incidents?

My wife and I have a "shared" Facebook page--one that I rarely engage with. When I do, I almost immediately regret it. Today was one such example. If social media were indeed just a place to share pictures of your dogs and kids with loved ones all accross the world, it may have some social value. But in the aggregate, it seems to have gone way off the rails. This is not some brilliant observation--I think everyone already knows this.

This morning, I argued with a total stranger (a friend of a friend) over something that neither of us is going to change our minds about. It got ugly really fast. He sent a very bitter, swear word laced instant message to me (us) and my wife read it first. She had no idea who this person was and they were calling me vitriolic names. Luckily, my wife and I don't have any secrets from each other, I told her what happened, and she "banned" him.

In his article, Cole argues that one day, a Twitter/Facebook/social justice mob is going to prove to be too stressful for a mentally ill person and they will commit suicide. Who knows? This may have already occurred. I don't think anyone will kill themselves as a result of what was said on my friends Facebook page today. It didn't go viral. Maybe ten people were reading it. But in the end I felt I wasted a tremendous amount of psychological and emotional energy over something dumb.

We know from the literature that the main ingredients of a suicide are a loss of belonging to something (like an important relationship ending or losing a long term job), feelings of being a burden on those around us, a sense of helplessness/hopelessness about the future and some history of self injurious behaviors--or practicing/rehearsing them. Throw in intoxication, financial difficulties, or some other state-variable and there you have it--suicide. Looking back at that list, it is not inconceivable that spending a lot of time on social media could at least lead to or exacerbate a high risk combination of variables culminating in something like that.

There have been pages and pages of articles, books and scholarly journal entries about social media and its effects on our aggregate, macro mental health. Increased levels of agression, narcissim, lower frustration tolerance, shorter time-horizons, and so on. But the medium is addicting, so we keep at it. The physiology of it is difficult to deny.

For men, social media can be a bizarre place. It is fueld entirely on emoting, "unfriending," cooling off, making up, and refriending. There is almost nothing rational, stoic or masculine about the space. Yet I've seen it, and been sucked into it myself. The immediate gratification of blasting a stranger for being wrong about some abstraction that you are wedded to is easy to get caught up in. That is, unless you are really well put together and self-assured. I've never had a "discussion" on a social media platform that led me to a greater understanding of an issue, nor modified any strongly held conviction I have based on something I read there. At best, it reinforces how atomized and heterogeneous we have become as a society. Again--a key component of suicidality is losing a sense of belonging.

In the interest of your own mental health, try giving it a break for a while. If you know someone who seems angrier, more irritible, more labile (moody) or just plain out of sorts when they are engaged with social media, tell them they might want to lay off. You might actually save their life.

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