OPINION: Can social media help solve America’s mental health crisis?

By most accounts, America has reached a mental health crisis.

In Georgia, 1 in 5 young people suffer from a mental condition that would benefit from treatment, based on data from the state department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

Almost 30% of adults in the state reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Many actors, athletes, politicians and everyday people have publicly shared their struggles, helping to bring the conversation about mental health to the forefront. But with increased attention comes an increase in demand for services that aren’t always readily available in many places.

Georgia ranked 48th in the country on access to care in 2022, according to an annual report from Mental Health America.

In the quest for diagnoses and treatments, people have turned to whatever resources are available to them, including, for better or worse, social media.

In a survey by Hopelab and the Well Being Trust, roughly 90% of teens and young adults with symptoms of depression said they had gone online for information about mental health issues.

“It’s much easier for me to reach out for help on social media than in person. There’s less pressure, and I can leave it there and live my life outside of it without thinking about it too much,” said one 22-year-old who participated in the survey and was quoted by NBC News.

It’s ironic that the platforms often blamed for wreaking havoc on our mental health also would be the same places people turn to for help.

It is important to meet people where they are, and social media could have a role to play in helping those who struggle with their mental health connect with community and resources. But our proclivity for sharing pithy advice and pseudoscience can easily be mistaken for evidence-based information by someone desperately seeking support.

Some influencers who have hundreds of thousands of followers routinely post mental health advice with the disclaimer that they are not a counselor, coach or licensed professional. Other influencers with a diagnosed mental illness have shared their personal struggles and information about the treatments they received, as well as their own “insights” for what has helped.

But, of course, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another.

When weighing such insights, healthy skepticism is the healthiest option.

“This dynamic we now have with social media is something that wasn’t really present at the start of my career,” said Jor-El Caraballo, a therapist with 10 years of experience and author of “Self-Care for Black Men: 100 Ways to Heal and Liberate.”

In therapy sessions, Caraballo talks to his clients about what they engage with online. “A lot of people are going to online sources first. It is super accessible,” he said.

But mental health concepts are more nuanced than anything that can be offered in a 60-second video or photo gallery.

On his own social media channels, Caraballo said he shares educational content and guides people to resources where they can get information to investigate on their own or with a therapist. The amateur “therapists” who are out there offering advice to the masses need to do the same.

For example, in his book, Caraballo offers strategies for Black men to engage in acts of self-care, such as reducing alcohol intake, reconnecting with long-lost dreams, healing emotional wounds and investing in community.

He also recommends they try to make an appointment with a therapist — even if that service might be hard to find.

“Anyone can call themselves a counselor or coach online, but what does that mean? Are they accountable to any sort of regulatory body? That signals there is a standard of behavior they must observe,” Caraballo said.

The content offered by licensed professionals may not be as shiny as the content from social media creators who are posting for entertainment purposes, he said, but it will surely be more credible.

Recognizing that people will continue to turn to social media looking for help, researchers at Harvard recently set out to harness the power of influencers in the hopes they would use it for good.

Earlier this year, the Harvard team identified dozens of mental health influencers and offered to provide them with content about the difficulty in accessing care, intergenerational trauma, climate anxiety and other core themes.

Harvard researchers saw this as the key to connecting with a hard-to-reach segment of the population.

The researchers found that their chosen influencers were 3% more likely to post content on Harvard-provided mental health themes. That sounds like a small percentage, but the content was viewed 800,000 times, according to researchers.

Trends in mental health have been going in the wrong direction. Finding ways to address the crisis means trying to reach people in new ways.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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