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How The Digital Age Has Impacted Mental Health Care

By Laura Greenstein | Feb. 04, 2019

Almost the entirety of my experience in seeking mental health care (apart from the actual therapy) has been online.

I looked for a therapist using different “find a therapist” search engines, clicking filters that would account for my insurance and location. I’ve read blogs and personal accounts of others’ experiences with therapy to determine if I found the right therapist. I’ve sought validation and support from friends and family by posting about my anxiety on social media.

My generation, “millennials,” which now takes up about 25% of the U.S. population, have been the pioneers for entering the mental health system in the digital age. No previous generation had the ability to search their symptoms online or receive virtual counseling.

The technological advances and resulting societal changes that took place during millennials’ upbringing have significantly shifted not only the way we learn about mental health, but also the way we seek care. While we’ve seen positive changes and more conveniences, there is also a lot of unsupported information to navigate nowadays. And with it, there are downsides that’s aren’t always addressed. Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for and things to keep in mind.

Finding Treatment Online
It seems to me that no one is really asking the question: How does the Internet impact treatment and recovery from mental illness? I constantly see research studies about how the Internet and social media impact our mental health generally. But not how it impacts mental health care specifically.

There are many positives of having the Internet as a tool to seek care. Information is more accessible. I found it very helpful in my search for a therapist to be able to read their bios, review their ratings and see what they listed as their main therapeutic methods. You can learn about treatment methods and see other people’s recommendations. You can even receive mental health care online.

However, there is a lot of mental health information out there. Too much, in fact. And it’s not all accurate. As there is no quality control over what people post online, there is potential for harmful content. For example, someone could post that “mental illness isn’t treatable” or there could be scam websites providing unprofessional therapy. The onus is on the individual to scrutinize this information and determine what’s credible and what isn’t. This can be difficult especially when you’re just starting out.

With that said, keep in mind:
For credible mental health information check out: NIMH, Psychology Today, NAMI, or the APA.

Talk to a professional before making any treatment-based decisions (such as medication).

If you’re unsure how to find treatment or support, you can contact the NAMI HelpLine for resources.

The Push For Self-Care
A recent change that has significantly impacted millennials is the rise of the self-care industry. While there are positive benefits to self-care, it’s also very unsettling that a $10 billion industry is telling people that they can take care of themselves rather than seek treatment.

For example, there are many mental health and therapy apps that claim they are as good as seeing a therapist. This is easy to buy in to when you’re paying $5 to download an app versus $100 a week to see a counselor. This is problematic because while possibly helpful, an app cannot replace therapy and treatment for someone with mental illness.

A big reason why the self-care industry is so successful is that the mental health system is expensive and challenging to navigate. Self-care is promoted to young people as a supplement to the treatment they cannot afford with the message, “you can help yourself.”

The concept of self-care delayed me in seeking treatment. I was a complete subscriber to self-care. I belonged to a yoga studio, downloaded mindfulness apps and regularly read articles about ways to improve my anxiety and mental health.

I didn’t want to pay for therapy, so I tried to manage my anxiety myself. This made my symptoms significantly worse. I started shutting down other parts of my life to focus on self-care. And without a mental health professional to guide me, there wasn’t anyone who could point out that my approach to self-care was actually causing me more anxiety. I just became more and more anxious, especially because the time and effort I was putting in wasn’t helping me. Eventually, I realized this wasn’t sustainable, and I needed treatment beyond what I could do for myself.

With that said, keep in mind:
If you are struggling, you don’t need to handle it on your own. Seek care!

There are ways to make mental health care more affordable. Look for mental health professionals with lower-cost options (such as sliding scale).

Self-care can be a helpful addition to treatment. You can, and should, discuss your self-care practices with your mental health professional.

Getting Support From Social Media
The majority of millennials, myself included, use social media. And not only do we use social media, but it is ingrained into our daily lives. So much so, that it has become a space for people to talk about their mental illness.

For example, celebrity Pete Davidson posted on Instagram about not wanting to be here anymore. Luckily, he was able to get the help he needed, but in that moment, he used social media to be heard. People post these kinds of messages regularly looking for someone to hear them, to care about them and to support them. And the problem with social media is that they may, or may not, get the support and encouragement they need.

I’ve found that using any social media platform is a constant balance of taking the good with the bad. I’ve had experiences of posting on social media about anxiety and feeling incredibly validated and supported. I shared my own personal story with my following and felt encouraged to continue posting about anxiety. I’ve also commented on other people’s posts and encouraged them to seek professional care.

At the same time, there are a lot of people who post triggering, stigmatizing and damaging comments on social media. I’ve had to take months at a time off from engaging on social media after seeing harmful posts. Social media has a big impact on how we feel, and some may feel discouraged to seek help based on what someone else says.

With that said, keep in mind:
If you feel triggered by something you see online, text 741741 to the crisis text line or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-9255.

If social media is negatively impacting your symptoms, take some time away from it or consult your mental health professional about how to handle it.

Don’t make any decisions about whether or not to seek care based on what others post. Only you know how you’re doing and what you need.

We may assume the extra convenience of being able to find endless information online and connect with others anywhere, anytime would only bring positive change. But it’s important to recognize some of the pitfalls that have come with the digital age and ensure people know how to seek help in this new climate. Despite what the Internet tells you, how many self-care apps you have or what your social media following suggests—there isn’t any replacement for professional mental health treatment.

Laura Greenstein is communications manager at NAMI.

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