Fandoms United India or FUI is a Facebook group for fans of popular culture to discuss everything from the superheroes of the Marvel universe to the Harry Potter spinoff movies. But apart from fan content, the group would often see its members posting about their mental health problems or seeking advice on how to deal with everyday strain. The large number of such posts triggered the creation of an offshoot Facebook group called We Are Here to Help, FUI that operates as a mental health support group and a non-judgemental space of peer support for those who want to talk about their frustrations.

Most members of the group are either students or young professionals. They hear each other out and offer empathy and advice. Members also seek recommendations from each other on good mental health professionals for therapy and other help. The group also posts daily affirmations that promote hope and emphasise the idea that people are not alone in their struggles, which serves as constant positive reinforcement.

We Are Here To Help, FUI is one of a handful of examples of how social media can actually help people improve their states of mind. As the World Wide Web turns 30 next year, more than half the world’s population will be using the Internet. With about 40% of Internet users spending at least two hours a day on social media, this avenue of communication could be harnessed to promote a positive mental well-being.

The negative psychological effects of the rise of social media are obvious and well documented. Reports cite an alarming overuse of the internet amongst teens and adults, which impacts academic and professional productivity. To control for this, many parents end up taking electronic devices away from their children during exam times and companies resort to altogether banning the social media usage by employees during office hours. There is an ongoing debate about whether internet addiction should be included in the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Some studies have indicated a linear association of social media usage with depression and anxiety, irrespective of the amount of time spent online. Even passive scrolling through Facebook and reading posts without any interaction with others are likely to cause negative moods as people go through cycles of frustration or helplessness from reading bad news, or start comparing their lives to momentous occasions posted by others and start feeling alienated and less privileged. People place their self-worth on the number of likes, comments, and retweets they get for their posts. Instances of cyberbullying, trolling, sexual harassment, mean memes, and late-night timeline surfing affect mental health and sleep.

Image credit: Pxhere
Image credit: Pxhere

But since, for most people, there is no escaping social media, it is imperative to reap mental health benefits from it.

Channelising benefits

While studies say that being a mere bystanders on social media may lead to bad moods, research has also shown that higher interaction with other individuals on their posts and opinions, promotes a positive affective state. This may be because individuals get a chance to channel their feelings and have them acknowledged, as opposed to bottling up their feelings which may affect their positive state of mind. Emotionally distressed people who are not comfortable discussing their emotions in real life are likely to speak up online, like on We Are Here To Help, FUI.

Moreover, the anonymity that some websites offer to their users, either by providing an option for posting anonymously or under the guise of a pseudonym, may particularly help marginalised communities to come forward with their problems with less fear of being harassed. In the #MeToo moment, many survivors of sexual abuse chose to be anonymous and found some solace in sharing their stories and naming their abusers despite the possible legal implications.

People who are confined indoors may be able to reach out to others online when mentally distressed or may look for reaffirming content to find relief.

Much like We Are Here To Help, FUI there are online mental health support groups and portals that encourage individuals to speak out about their problems. The website 7 Cups, which also has an app with the same name, provides free online therapy and support, and can be accessed anonymously. This website follows the peer support model and has trained “listeners” who are not mental health professionals to offer some immediate empathy and comfort to those who seek help. The listeners might eventually suggest seeking professional help.

Another Facebook group called Depression and Anxiety Mental Health Support Group does exactly what its name suggests. It offers help for depression and anxiety through the peer support model. To ensure being a safe space, such online communities engage strict protocols against any potential trolls and harassers. They give members the option of reporting inappropriate posts, have moderators to assess comments, and immediately warn or block harassers. At times, mental health professionals are also part of such groups and may be available to talk.

Finding professional help

Websites like LinkedIn see an active engagement of its users with a plethora of mental health professionals. Renowned therapists, researchers, and academics actively share their work on various facets of mental health, and also offer insights into dealing with various stressors and other psychological problems.

In India, online public engagement regarding mental health problems has recently resulted into a crowd-sourced list – initiated by iCall, a psychosocial helpline of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences – of reliable mental health professionals throughout the country. This list contains information on various therapists, with respect to their location, qualifications, gender, the populations that they are adept in dealing with, fee, and the testimonials from their current/previous clients. It is only via social media that people were able to assimilate and disburse this crucial information, and may have aided many in seeking help. Therapy itself is experiencing a shift to online and numerous apps now facilitate therapeutic interventions.

Overall, social media and mental health have a weird marriage. While the negative effects of social media are often emphasised, the Internet can be and has also emerged as a great form of support.

The writer is a senior research assistant at the department of psychology at Monk Prayogshala.