Around five years ago, researchers applied an Artificial Intelligence algorithm to 43,950 Instagram photos to investigate the correlation between the types of photos we post to social media and our mental wellbeing. They discovered some interesting trends that suggest there may be indicators in our images that give away how we’re feeling, even when we don’t intend to. For example, “photos posted by depressed individuals were more likely to be bluer, greyer, and darker”. It was hoped that this technology could open the door to earlier diagnoses in mental health that could be life changing, but even in a world of exciting new tech, we need to look out for each other in more traditional ways.
One of the main reasons we love social media is because it gives us a glimpse into the lives of others – or at least what others would want us to see. In the main we are seeing the most filtered, sometimes entirely manufactured versions of people’s worlds. After all, who is going to share a photo of themselves that they don’t like? But in amongst the careful curation, a team at the University of Texas have identified a few things that, if you spot them in your feed, may indicate that something is amiss.
1. Negative comparisons
The lifestyles of others, particularly celebrities, can be a source of much mirth on social media, but they can also offer an entirely artificial view of life – whether that’s through artful editing or simply presenting scenarios that stretch the definition of truth. If you spot a friend sharing these kinds of posts to compare themselves and their lives unfavourably, then this is a red flag.
2. A sudden decrease in activity
Regular posts become fewer, or sometimes drop off altogether. It could be a social media break (but they usually come with an announcement post, right?). If you can’t think of a good reason why they’re leaving the socials alone, then a noticeable absence is worth following up on.
3. Posting under the influence
Let’s be clear here – everyone has posted while out for a few drinks and Friday night feeds are usually awash with photos of glasses and bottles. But when regular posts are made while drunk, whether or not they are swiftly deleted the morning after, or every photo seems to feature alcohol in some way, then it could indicate that all is not well.
4. Suddenly solitary
For many of us during lockdown it’s been near impossible to take duo-selfies or have the opportunity for family photos. But equally, when we do get the chance to catch up, even if it’s a video call, it can be a cause for a celebratory pic or ‘screenie’. If you notice that a friend is unusually solo in all their posts, then it could be a sign that they aren’t feeling up to being around people and are deliberately isolating themselves from others.
Tetiana Sykes of Mental Health Europe, the largest independent organisation in the region committed to the promotion of positive mental health, cautions that “images on social media may be also deceptive due to huge social stigma that surround mental (ill) health.” Mental health problems are more common than we may think. For example, one in five adolescents in Europe is affected by at least one psychological problem in any given year.
Although dealing with mental health problems is extremely personal experience, and there is no one size fits all solution, each of us can play part in changing minds and ending prejudices against people experiencing mental ill-health. In this respect, it’s really important to learn as much as we can and understand that experiencing a mental health problem is not a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of. Mental health problems can often be human ways of coping with and making sense of complex life experiences such as grief or trauma. As Tetiana stresses “Do not let negative perceptions of mental health problems influence your attitudes towards people who may experience them. The best way to challenge these stereotypes is through open conversations, direct contact and unconditional support.”
Mental health problems can often be human ways of coping with and making sense of complex life experiences such as grief or trauma
So, what’s the best approach to take?
If someone is posting really worrying images or statuses on social media and you feel that they are in immediate danger, then it’s important to act quickly and call the emergency services. Otherwise, The Samaritans offer some really helpful guidance on how best to intervene. They stress the importance of reaching out and offering support, or if this isn’t an option, telling someone you trust or reporting their activity to the social media platform itself, so they can provide support.
Reaching out can feel tough, especially as you might feel that that you’re intruding, or that you might make things worse, but your words and care can make a huge difference. Just start with something simple – “Hi, is everything ok? I’m a bit worried about you.” If they don’t want to talk, that’s ok. But make sure you let them know that you are there for them. If they do want to talk, then it’s a good idea to read the full ‘SHUSH’ tips for active listening on The Samaritans website, which can help you to help them in the best way possible:
Local mental health charities are working across Europe to support people living with mental ill health and their families, as well running crisis helplines, campaigning for awareness and challenging stereotypes. They are an excellent source of information and resources for everyone. You can search for an organisation near you through CALM.