Sunday, July 3, 2022

Troubled minds unburdening on social media

If misery needs company, then the social media is providing a perfect rendezvous. And that is not such a bad thing. Dr Sophie Moagi, clinical psychologist in Gaborone says, “with more people experiencing mental health issues and the conversation turning online, the long-standing stigma around this topic is finally being broken down. Hearing that other people are going through similar struggles can be validating and normalising, which can help reduce feelings of isolation and shame.”

Social media platforms have made mental-health content far more accessible. The younger generation is increasingly comfortable discussing their personal lives, including their mental health, online.

Dr Moagi says, “the positive side of all the press and social media exposure is that it has become more acceptable that people have mental health issues, and they can choose to go into psychotherapy and start to get better.”

Dr Moagi’s positive review about social media providing psychotherapy however comes with a proviso: “One risk of taking mental health advice from social media posts is that often, it is very general. What one person may find helpful can be troublesome for another, depending on their personal situation. Unlike on social media, a professional therapy session provides a safe space where you can work with your therapist to explore problems and find individualistic solutions.”

The rise of social media has made nearly everything quickly and easily accessible to the public. As it turns out, this is even true within domains where privacy and confidentiality are considered foundational principles, such as psychotherapy. In keeping with the times, the field of psychotherapy has begun adapting itself to the online world. A couch in an office has become a Zoom screen, emails to providers are being replaced by text messages, and providers are taking to social-media platforms themselves to boost their practices and share information about mental health. This shift has increased exposure to conversations about therapy and mental illness, which has subsequently led to a growing acceptance of mental-health challenges. The result? Younger generations are now far more likely than previous generations to not only seek mental health treatment, but to openly discuss it with others. Botswana now has a generation of individuals who are educating themselves about mental health, seeking treatment for their mental health in a more technology-centered culture, and perfectly comfortable discussing personal aspects of their lives on a public forum. It should be no surprise that there are few qualms about sharing a therapy session online for others to see. Since the start of COVID-19, most traditional talk therapy sessions have been held via tele-health, where clients can meet a therapist without leaving home. At the same time, social media apps like TikTok have blown up as a way for people to post and look through countless quick videos of, well, just about anything. Casually scrolling through these apps, you may come across a video clip of someone sitting in front of a computer and having a conversation with their therapist, or a screenshot of another person and their psychiatrist texting back and forth.

Senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana, Dr Poloko Ntshwarang says, “social media posts have the potential to humanize mental health problems and encourage people to talk about their issues and seek help. However, it is important to remember that online material can  have a negative side too. Not all advice is good advice, so being discerning is key. Additionally, we tend to only to see a snapshot of people’s lives in their social media posts. Often, problems are simplified and the whole picture is rarely visible. Posts may also contain false information. For example, someone may claim that exercise alone can cure a mental health problem. While lifestyle changes can help support good mental health, talking therapy or medication may be necessary too. Social media can also create pressure to look, think or feel a certain way which can have a detrimental impact on our mental health too.”

There are plenty of motivations for this kind of content. On the one hand, individuals post clips of their therapists to raise awareness of mental health, and to share their story. On the other hand, a person might put up a video of their provider giving valuable insight or helping them talk through a difficult issue, hoping to help someone else who might have needed to hear it. And of course, many creators use interactions with their therapists to get laughs from their audience. Some Gen Z posters are notorious for their darker, often self-deprecating sense of humour, and quite a few therapists have been able to adapt to this. This makes for therapeutic discussions that are just as sarcastic as they are empathetic, and that a lot of younger viewers can get a kick out of, if not also relate to. Like any other field, mental health will evolve and grow as society does. When shifts occur, they aren’t inherently positive or negative; it just means that there are new things that must be considered. There are certainly benefits that could come from this phenomenon.

For one, mental health treatment isn’t always accessible for everyone due to cost, waitlists, etc. These social-media posts can help to spread knowledge to people who wouldn’t have gotten the chance otherwise. It also normalizes the therapy process. Seeing a favourite creator chatting with a professional about their mental health might encourage someone to seek treatment themselves, especially if that person was anxious or uncertain about getting started. While all of this is enlightening,  confidentiality and privacy are key factors in psychotherapy. Laws and guidelines have been developed to best protect what a client discusses in treatment as much as possible, as well as the relationship between therapist and client in general. If clips of therapy are being put up for hundreds, thousands, even millions to see – even brief clips – that is opening the door into that space.

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