Tuesday August 20, 2013 | 08:30 AM
Posted by Rob Gould

There have been several articles on the topic that have caught my attention over the past few weeks, so I thought that it warranted a post. Does social media cause depression or help people who are suffering from it? Can you diagnose a manic episode via social media? Those are some of the questions that I have seen addressed and that I will try to address here today.

Let's start with depression, an illness that millions of Americans suffer from. A recent  University of Michigan conference about Depression on College Campuses highlighted new data which suggests that sites like Facebook are becoming outlets for people to communicate signs of depression. Dr. John Greden, executive director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, states that social media outlets have led to a profound decrease of stigma surrounding depression, especially among students in their late teens and early 20s. It seems that many young people have been very open on social media about their struggles with depression. Something that never would have been discussed 30-40 years ago. This would seem to be a very good thing.

However, in a study, also out of the University of Michigan, evidence has emerged linking social media use to negative emotional outcomes including anxiety and depression. The study, titled “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults,” goes on further to suggest that social media was in fact a causative agent, rather than merely a correlated phenomenon. Not surprisingly, the study also found that the heavier the social media use the higher the likelihood of negative outcomes. The researchers gave this unsettling summary of their findings: “The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time… On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.” This does not seem like a very good thing. At all.

In my opinion, whether social media helps or hurts a person's struggle with depression depends largely on how the person is using it. Are they using it to connect with others and decrease isolation? Or, are they using it to further isolate themselves and avoid real human connection?. I think these are important questions to consider, but I'm certainly not an expert. I'll let you come to your own conclusions after reading the background materials.

The second big question that I've seen addressed in several articles is, "can social media be used to accurately diagnose mental illness in users?" I don't think anyone would argue that a definitive diagnosis could be made using social media alone. However, it does seem that social media can be a valuable tool with which to look for warning signs in its users.

A New York Magazine article, titled "Can You Diagnose a Manic Episode on Twitter?" poses the question, "can mental illness be diagnosed online?"

"We posed the question to American Psychiatric Association president Dr. Jeff Lieberman, who is also chair of the department of psychiatry at Columbia University's medical school. He said social-media utterances, like any other type of utterance, can play a part in psychiatry."

"'Individuals who are manic, depressed, psychotic, anxious, addicted — if they're utilizing social media for communication, they will utilize it in ways that reflect their symptoms or their behavior dysfunction,' Lieberman said. 'This is not surprising in the least. It will depend, of course, on the degree to which the person has integrated these forms of communication into their modes of behavior.'"

"'It's no different than the person who is sitting there talking gibberish or acting bizarre. This is another manifestation — it's coming through this new communicative form, social media, but it's data.' The communication age 'poses a real opportunity, but also a real challenge, for physicians and health-care providers.' Changes in information-gathering techniques open doctors to legal risks, while privacy regulations may limit avenues for communication. The greatest value, he argued, is not in diagnosing illness but monitoring it."

In a study published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, titled "Feeling bad on Facebook: depression disclosures by college students on a social networking site," researchers found that, " given the frequency of depression symptom displays on public profiles, social networking sites could be an innovative avenue for combating stigma surrounding mental health conditions or for identifying students at risk for depression."

At a minimum, it seems that social media is being used to reduce the stigma around mental illness. Anything that can assist in this is definitely a good thing in my book. Whether it can accurately be used to identify those at risk for depression or mania still remains to be seen. So, to answer the question I started with, "Social media and mental illness, helpful or hurtful?" I feel like the answer is really both—or—the jury is still out.  

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Social media has changed the way that many of us learn, purchase, interact and explore the world around us. And, things are just getting started. Social, Social is a place to discuss social media with people from all walks of life. No experts allowed.

About the Author

Rob works as a digital marketing & public relations consultant to agencies, brands, and individuals. He has 20 years of marketing experience. He also currently serves in a volunteer capacity as director of pr/communications for TEDxDirigo. From 2005-2011, Rob served as director of social media & agency communications at The VIA Agency (Portland). Prior to VIA, Rob worked with several PR & advertising agencies in London & Boston. He is a graduate of The University of Vermont (UVM) and a Maine transplant (2002).

Follow Rob on Twitter at @bobbbyg

His real-life interests include art, travel, writing, design, psychology, the beach, & exercise (grudgingly at times).

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