What’s social media got to do with mental health stigma?


I’ve been reading some of the literature on mental health stigma and thinking about the role social media can play in influencing attitudes and behaviours. Checking out the Time to Change campaign, which had 93,996 fans on Facebook and 13,865 followers on Twitter when I last checked, it is clear that social media is increasingly part of the mix.

Just to give you an example of how messages/ideas can go viral on social media, when actress Rebecca Front tweeted: “Hey well known Twitterers. Fancy taking the stigma out of mental illness? I’ll start: I’m Rebecca Front & I’ve had panic attacks. #whatstigma” she got mental health hitting the top trending list. You can find out more about it it here .
Here are a few of my initial ponderings about the role of social media as a platform for challenging stigma…

Have you ever talked to someone about mental health? – Time to Change’s strap line is ‘it’s time to talk’ and this is based on research that getting people talking about mental health increases understanding. Face-to-face contact is the most effective way to positively influence discriminatory attitudes. However, it appears that contact has to be on an equal footing to be effective. Social media is a great equaliser. Twitter only allows you 140 characters whatever your status or income. I’m interested in the extent to which this sort of virtual contact may replicate direct contact.

My friend’s ok with this so why shouldn’t I be? – I’ve seen quite a bit out there recently about the value of online trust – people trusting the people they follow more than they might trust an advertiser or someone speaking from a position of situational authority. Noticing that my friend has ‘liked’ or ‘shared’ something from the Time to Change Facebook page or re-tweeted an anti-stigma message just might nudge my awareness in a positive direction. Researchers have found that ‘extended contact’ (i.e. indirect contact via a friend-of-a-friend or through hearing a story) can still be a powerful means of countering prejudice. So re-tweeting a blog or ‘liking’ a Facebook status update may also play a role, even if we don’t directly know the person whose story it is.

Hang on, that person’s not so different to me… – messages about the prevalence of mental health problems have been shown to be effective in challenging stigma. Many of us will be familiar with the ‘one in four’ quote. I think Rebecca Front’s message was so powerful because she is not primarily known for experiencing panic attacks. She is an actress who happens to experience panic attacks. #whatstigma got other people sharing their experiences. As the #hashtag trended, an increasing web of connections was developed. Social media seems to create possibilities for reach which would be hard to replicate through face-to-face contact.

People can be out there and proud about experiencing a mental health problem! – the research I’ve read so far on stigma has not touched on the ‘out-and-proud’ in-your-face approach to influencing attitudes. However, I personally love it when people re-claim negative words and phrases. A good example is on Twitter. On her website, Victoria says: ‘I want to scrap the idea that refusing rehab is cool and instead make talking about mental health fashionable’. You can find her website here. I wonder if this trend will particularly appeal to and grow with younger people.

I’m very aware that social media is just another communication tool and can quite as easily be used to perpetuate stigmatising messages as challenge them. I did a mini-experiment to see how it easy it is to access derogatory mental health stereotypes. I typed #mental into Twitter and the vast majority of tweets were using the #hashtag in an informative and constructive way – hurrah! However, then I tried some more pejorative words and it wasn’t quite the same story – hey ho… still a way to go…

It got me thinking about how effective might a concerted campaign be to challenge negative language used on social media platforms. It would be quite straightforward to reply to someone who has used a derogatory #hashtag. However, I suspect it would be largely ineffectual. As in direct contact, the best sort of challenge is between friends who like and trust each other.

I haven’t included any references in this post, but just let me know if you’d like any of them. I’d love to hear your views about tackling mental health stigma online. If anyone’s out there doing research about on the subject then do get in touch.

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4 Responses to What’s social media got to do with mental health stigma?

  1. Christi says:

    I think social media has created a great outlet for stamping out stigma, but also for bringing together those with mental illness to collaborate and not feel so alone. At our website, Ask A Bipolar, we entertain questions from those with AND without bipolar disorder who want to know more information. We use this to not only assist people in getting some extra advice, but also to get insight and opinions from those who have the illness and to inform those that don’t have it but know someone who does and would like to be a little more informed. Sometimes its hard to ask our loved ones and friends about these types of issues because we might be afraid that it is a sensitive subject, but social media can help with that by educating publicly the truths and answering the questions that some are too shy to ask. :)

    • Victoria says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. I think it’s great your website is open to everyone. Where diagnoses carry a lot of stigma I think the opportunity to find out information anonymously online is absolutely invaluable :-)

  2. Andre Tomlin says:

    Hi Victoria,

    Great blog!

    I agree that people can be a little precious about some terminology, e.g. the word mental. In my experience, it’s health professionals that suffer most from this problem, rather than people with mental health issues themselves.

    Reclaiming the language and using it in a positive way is what I try and do through my blog which is entitled ‘The Mental Elf’: http://www.thementalelf.net

    I believe that we need to empower everyone by providing them with the best quality mental health information we can. There’s so much research and knowledge out there that it’s hard to know where to start and what to read first. The vast majority of information is quite biased and unreliable as well, so it’s important that we can focus on the evidence-based and summarised stuff.

    My site provides bite-sized chunks of information (1 or 2 blogs per day), which help folk keep up-to-date with the latest reliable mental health research, policy and practice.


    • Victoria says:

      Hi Andre. Thank you for your comment and love your points about the words we use – whole research project just in that I think! I’ve come across your blog and it’s great to curate the vast amount of information there is out there in one place. I will add you to my blog roll. Thanks again. Victoria

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