A CORK-based consultant psychiatrist has said that social media can provide a helpful community for people suffering mental health issues but she has warned about the dangers of “regretted disclosures.”
Research has shown that 65% of Irish adults have a Facebook account and many people use social media platforms to reach out for help when struggling with mental health problems.
Dr Ann Payne, Consultant Psychiatrist with Special Interest in Emergency Medicine, said people will often seek help from an online audience rather than trained professionals.
“Not all those who suffer from mental health problems attend their appropriate services,” she said.
“In fact, peer-level support is very often the first point of contact and with social media, this does not have to be ‘face to face’ but increasingly, via social media where contacts are both known and unknown.
“Individuals can divulge feelings, thoughts and opinions and expect reactions almost instantaneously,” she added.
There are significant pitfalls with the use of social media as a mental health forum, including loss of privacy and regretted disclosures, according to Dr Payne.
“There is also a theoretical risk of over identification, encouragement of destructive behaviour, and the propagation of misinformation,” she said.
Dr Payne revealed that she has witnessed people seeking help via social media and referenced a 2012 NIMROD study on the issue.
“Regarding depression specifically, it found that online discussions could provide shared experiences and a structure of coping strategies, which may help individuals in distress,” said Dr Payne.
“Personally, I have recently seen individuals in crisis reach out over their Facebook or Twitter accounts.
“Personal feelings and distress were openly discussed and people responded to offer support,” she added.
“The crisis appeared to resonate with people in similar circumstances and therefore they possibly found the correct audience for their contacts to empathise.
“The support was all positive, appeared to be from people across countries, and there were no negative or critical comments.”
However Dr Payne said the majority of comments were more empathy-filled than specific risk management strategies.
“It is appealing to examine the possibility of using social media to break down barriers to treatment and promote both mental and physical health closer to home,” she said.
“As a consultant psychiatrist, I can see that social media, and the constant access phenomenon, is both an untapped resource and a constant background noise, for individuals experiencing mental health difficulties,” she added.