Here at Brandwatch we have a powerful tool for measuring online discourse and a world-class team of social researchers. We’ve put these two assets to use in a new study on mental health in the UK, focused on challenging stigma and tackling barriers to treatment.
We partnered with charity Ditch The Label to understand mental health in the digital age. Using a corpus of more than 12 million conversations, this is the first study of its kind and gives an entirely new view of the shape of mental health in the UK.
We all have mental health (MH), but for many people problems with MH are a daily reality. Almost one in four adults experiences MH problems in any given year, and around one in six meets criteria for common mental health conditions. Gender and wealth impact both your chances of experiencing these and your chance of accessing help.
In a recent Guardian article, Matt Haig makes a strong argument for the negative impact of social media on MH. This argument commonly depicts social media as a magnifying glass, concentrating the rays of social pressure. “If we can accept that our physical health can be shaped by society”, explains Haig, “by secondhand smoke or a bad diet – then we must accept that our mental health can be too”.
There is growing evidence for this pressure effect. In 2016, researchers at UCLA found social media likes from strangers triggered the nucleus accumbens, part of the brain’s reward system that is particularly sensitive in adolescence. In other words, social networks may add extra strain to users’ mental health and sense of self.
However, our study also found social media being used for social good. Events such as Mental Health Awareness Week drove peaks and more people are getting involved in the conversation. APMS studies show that access to MH care is improving overall. In 2007, 24% of those with mental health problems were accessing care. By 2014 this had grown to 37%.
We also found online networks being used to supplement offline treatment. Among those experiencing body dysmorphia, online sharing was the second most-mentioned treatment (10%) behind therapy (12%). Patients use online networks to better understand their conditions, build a sense of community and gain peer support.
This study contains important findings for policy-makers, brands, social network owners, NGOs and medical professionals.
While sites are being used as valuable support networks, it’s important to ensure authors are reaching out to professionals where necessary. For eating disorder discussion, we found that demand for online advice outweighs supply, suggesting need for additional tailored support. There is an argument that brands and social networks, which may inadvertently add to the pressure effect, have a responsibility to address MH in campaign work.
There is also a need for greater awareness of and support for BDD. Body dysmorphia saw the largest shares of ‘anger’, ‘stress’ and ‘struggling’ tones and sufferers felt the condition was misrepresented in the media. Educators, health practitioners and journalists were all underrepresented, suggesting need for further education among both professions and the general public.
While access to MH care may be improving overall, this varies across demographics. Authors were also far more likely to seek treatment for risk symptoms associated with physical health such as appetite change (62%) and chronic pain (60%) than MH symptoms such as anxiety (25%) and body image (20%).
Authors experiencing bullying were less likely to identify their symptoms as MH-related, posing an additional barrier to care. HCPs should be mindful that patients may describe MH symptoms in purely physical terms.
Further research is also needed into the impact of ‘trigger’ events. Our research found, for example, a significant link between the EU referendum and sleep disruption. For those with underlying conditions, this type of event may trigger or worsen MH symptoms.
While signs of progress are evident in the research, the study also highlights obstacles and need for further input from organisations. More authors are moving to sharing their MH experiences on social media. With this move comes a need and opportunity for both peer and professional support.
A full copy of the research paper on mental health in the UK can be found here.