Social media can either be a great place to go if you’re struggling with a mental health issue, or a really bad one, since social media can encourage feelings and behaviors that put people at risk. Studies even show that people’s Instagram feeds are a good predictor of their mental health issues. That makes sense, since social media is such a big part of our daily lives. That’s why Instagram recently launched a new feature that allows users to discreetly send the network a heads-up about anyone they think might be struggling with issues like self-harm, eating disorders or suicidal thoughts. Instagram will then send the at-risk individual a message with some helpful resources and hotlines. We asked an experienced psychologist to weigh in on how effective this new mental health feature is.

Girl laying on bed looking at her mobile phone

Is the Average Person’s Mental Health Affected by Social Media?

Even for those who don’t struggle with mental illness, social media can have a detrimental effect on your emotional health. “I believe social media, especially Facebook, is sensory overload,” says Dr. Harold Jonas, founder of Sober Network Inc. “It’s an incredible distraction in people’s daily lives, with negligible positive return overall. While using social media feels enjoyable and can produce a sense of community, Dr. Jonas explains that it can also keep you from experiencing real social interactions (like grabbing coffee with your friends IRL), which, in turn, can affect your overall mental health.

Sad woman reading text message to her friend in cafe.

How Social Media and Mental Illness Are Related

When it comes to people who are dealing with serious mental health concerns, social media can both help and hurt the situation. The good? “Social media allows people with mental illness to connect with others who have their same illness or symptoms and find group support through a community group page that allows them to share, manage and develop coping skills with others,” explains Dr. Jonas. It can also be helpful by providing access to education about different types of mental illnesses and where people might be able to find help, he says.

But sometimes social media can have the opposite effect, especially when it comes to bullying among younger people. Cyberbullying hurts everyone from young kids to adults, and it has become rampant in our online-based society. Dr. Jonas says the biggest problem with social when it comes to people who are especially vulnerable to cyberbullying is that there’s no filter. While it’s now an option to turn off comments on Instagram, people are generally free to say what they want on the internet. “Cruelty on social media is a very big reality,” says Dr. Jonas, “especially because many people just do not have boundaries once they log on. They say and do things which they may not ever do in person, and sometimes those actions can have disastrous consequences when engaging with a person with mental illness.” So yeah, bullying is a major concern here.

Woman text messaging against brick wall

the New Insta Feature and How Social Media Networks Can Do Better

In theory, the new Instagram feature that helps people in need is awesome. Often, it can be hard for family members and friends to figure out how and when to address mental health concerns with their loved ones, and this provides a relatively anonymous outlet. While all cases submitted to Instagram are reviewed by a real person, and the feature does provide a variety of suggestions from calling hotlines to talking to a loved one, Dr. Jonas warns that an automated system isn’t a substitute for a licensed mental health practitioner.

“The dilemma is that they’re not speaking to a real-life, trained professional. There’s no way to customize what that specific individual needs. For an appropriate crisis intervention, a trained professional needs to develop a thoughtful customization for that person. It’s wildly dangerous for people to receive care or be pointed blindly in the direction of some form of help,” he says. “Obviously Instagram is trying to do the right thing, but if the message is not the right message, or the resource is not the correct resource for their mental illness, their effort can have a negative impact.”

All that being said, it’s clearly better to have some intervention rather than none, so Instagram’s feature is a step in the right direction. How can it be better? Dr. Jonas emphasizes the importance of customizing each intervention and avoiding a generalized approach that may make some people’s symptoms worse. “There’s no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all for mental health treatment,” he reminds us.

What do you think about Instagram’s new feature? Would you ever use it if you saw a friend struggling? Tell us @BritandCo!

(Photos via Getty)