ACP member speaks about memes, Instagram and young people

ACP member, Rachel Melville-Thomas speaks to Artefact Magazine about how young people use images on Instagram to document mental health issues.

According to a survey of 1,500 people, conducted by RSPH and the Young Health Movement, Instagram is the social network deemed the most detrimental to the mental health and well-being of young adults. There is even an online community dedicated to posting so called memes which are centred around mental healt, used as either a personal coping mechanism or in a bid to normalise the conversation surrounding the topic. However, the writer asks if these memes actually help people open up or whether their tone is more harmful to the mental wellbeing of other young Instagram users.

Instagram has introduced some features to safeguard its users and Instagram co-founder and CEO, Kevin Systrom, described the app’s new settings, including a new way of anonymously reporting users who appear to be experiencing mental health issues during live broadcasts. When reported, the user will receive a message offering help, which includes options to talk to a loved one or a professional helpline. 

However, Melville-Thomas advises: “If in doubt, don’t post.” She adds that  "the trouble with expressing things through images is that the meaning is often not clear.” She questions if some memes mentioned in the article, express pain or if they are simply celebrating eating disorders for example. “Humans will always try to manage difficult situations through humour, but the memes we see are really bleak and painful, rather than funny.”

It’s as if there is trouble in finding an “emotional vocabulary” that would properly express how a young person might be feeling. I think that’s why the dark memes get produced.”  Whilst they appear to be funny or witty on the surface, she believes that they simply display how helpless the sufferer is feeling without any real benefit to themselves or other people.

She explains: “Research shows that excessive social media activity encourages states of mind that are the opposite of good mental health practices – like escapism, comparing and defining oneself simply in physical terms, lack of honesty in anonymous messages and the addictive aspects.” 

ACP registered child and adolescent psychotherapists are trained to explore underlying issues and disturbance and to make sense of the different ways children and young people choose to communicate. Melville-Thomas agrees that although the internet can be used to support young people’s mental health – perhaps through support from friends, or joining in on regulated online chat groups, "the best way to improve the mental health of adolescents is to simply log off."

She concludes: “There is research ..showing that sympathy from someone face to face works better, than sympathy in a text. So we need to be helping parents, teachers, family members to learn how to listen for teenagers mental health difficulties, not brush them aside, and take them really seriously. Talking beats texting.” 

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