iStock_000019144724XSmallMay is Mental Health Awareness Month and though this is the final day of May, we wanted to continue to blog about mood and emotions. We have some amazing guest bloggers who are doing interesting work in the areas of social media and depression. Over the coming weeks, I want to highlight the research performed by Dr. Megan Moreno and her Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT). To find more on social media and mental health, Dr. Moreno’s team has also contributed posts to On the Pulse.

Guest Author Sara Klunk: A college student and social media researcher perspective

As a college student on the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT), I spend a lot of time researching, well, myself. Okay, not myself exactly, but people who are my age, go to the same university, and have a lot of the same interests. So basically, yes, I spend a lot of time researching myself, my friends and how we interact with each other on social media sites. As our team has continued to explore this area, it has been interesting to see how the results match up with my own experiences on these sites.

As someone who has been using Facebook since freshman year of high school, Facebook has become a natural avenue for me and my friends to express ourselves. We update each other with milestones such as new jobs, new relationships, or the acceptance into a new school and also with the small things, such as exam grades, daily stressors, or a simple “hey” to an old friend. Facebook has been a constant in my life and the lives of many of my friends so, generally, we feel comfortable using it to communicate with each other.

Some of SMAHRT’s studies have explored how college students use Facebook to express symptoms of depression. In my own experience, I have seen people update their pages with statuses expressing hopelessness and sadness such as, “I just can’t hold it together anymore” or “Worst day ever. Hands down.” Though there are usually only a handful of these kinds of statuses sprinkled across my newsfeed each day, I become increasingly concerned when the same people begin to show a pattern of these posts.

From this pattern emerges an internal dilemma: How am I expected to respond? How should I respond?

Is it even any of my business? What happens if I say nothing? When acquaintances or a Facebook friend that I have not talked to in a few years begins to show a pattern of depression symptoms on Facebook, this amplifies the dilemma because I am no longer in regular contact with this person. Reaching out to them becomes much more difficult, and potentially much more awkward. It seems that I have two options: on one hand, I could ask how they are doing out of the blue and risk coming off as nosy; and on the other, I could say nothing and hope that a closer friend or family member notices the post and reaches out to them. Neither one seems completely ideal.

What I have noticed in most cases is that friends or family members often respond to these posts in a concerned and encouraging manner, as seen below:

Example 1:

Worst day ever. Hands down.

Whys that?

Only means tomorrow’s gonna be better!

Example 2:

Extremely upset. This is another one of those times when I really wish I could say exactly how I feel without facing the consequences of social media.

You can say anything you want to me… send me a personal message.

If you wanna vent you know my number… text away love

Example 3:

I know it is my fault, that I should have probably studied harder but man that test really bit me in the butt. Now it’s time to study for another one but it is hard to get motivated when you feel like a failure.

I know how you feel

You got the bad one out of your system. Now you can focus on kicking butt on the next

Been there!

Ideally, all of the responses to these posts that I see would mirror the encouragement and support seen in these comments. I believe that there is a true potential for this encouragement and support to help the individual handle the stressful event or period of time. Additionally, with friends and family watching what the individual is posting, an opportunity emerges for the individual’s support system to recommend professional help if symptoms of depression become routinely displayed on Facebook.

Unfortunately, in my experience these comments are not always the most encouraging or helpful. It is not uncommon for those who post many statuses expressing their despair to receive negative feedback from the Facebook community, as seen below:

It’s nights like this that really get to you, being lonely and realizing a lot… I hate being upset, all I want is for the tears to stop…

Man up!!

What a girl…

Reactions such as these are clearly not helpful to the individual and may even make the symptoms worse. When the individual clearly lacks encouragement and concern from others online, then what?

How do these people receive the help they need?

Though I have seen Facebook be used in a positive manner between friends and family to support one another when worrisome statuses are posted, I believe that Facebook also has the potential for these individuals and the ones who may not have the support they need to learn about mental health resources in their community. It is here that I think clinicians or others in the medical field have the opportunity to reach out and make sure these people are receiving the necessary care. Whether it’s an app or some kind of automated screening process, there seems to be ways that Facebook could be used as a way to screen for depression among users. The feasibility of this idea needs to be explored further and this is something I hope SMAHRT as well as other research teams are able to investigate in the future.

It is because of my personal experience with statuses like these that I was initially drawn to the work done by SMAHRT. Working with the team to develop the research to support potential interventions through Facebook was, and still is, extremely motivating and interesting to me because it so closely ties with the people in my life and my everyday experiences. I am hopeful that the current tools and technologies can and will be applied to help those suffering from depression and other mental health disorders in the future.