Why We Deserve Better Than Instagram When It Comes to Mental Health
Article by: Jake Woolf
Welcoming a good friend of the brand, Jake Woolf. Jake is the Editorial Director and Co-Founder of SEAM—a fashion marketplace that connects brands directly with shoppers like never before. Previously Jake was a Fashion Editor at GQ. Alright, let’s get straight into it.
For all of its power to connect and inform, social media also means personal struggles aren’t what they used to be. On Instagram and Twitter, the often messy intimate details of a person’s life no longer peacefully (or more likely, unpeacefully) exist only in private, and this is mostly by choice. We see it every day in our feeds. Do you feel passionate about politics? Sound off. Did someone’s outfit not conform to your self-imposed rigorous standards of taste? Let ‘em have it! Did you get a new job? Ring the social media bell for free clout coins! Did you confront your mental health struggles and emerge a beautiful, pure butterfly, free of sin? Time to rub it in everyone’s face!
That’s, of course, a massive over-simplification of people’s intent when sharing their battles with mental health online. The thing is, in my experience, saying things like "I have bipolar 2," and "I don't drink anymore" out loud take the power out of these seemingly taboo traits and behaviors. Sharing my journey with sobriety and mental health online has been, for me, a useful backstop. Personally, my reasoning is this: If I make my intention quit drinking public, then I will be held accountable. But I also admit that this method isn’t perfect—because on Instagram, we often only share the best parts of things. Ultimately, this shit is on me. And that’s just it: when it comes to quitting the booze or getting treatment for bipolar, there aren’t many “best parts,” especially in the beginning, It’s worth then examining what and how we share our stories around these issues online, and to be critical about what their effects on others might be.
Alas, mental health clout-chasing is not one person’s fault. Social media, particularly Instagram, by its very nature, rewards perfection, winning and triumph over struggle, adversity, and failure. Looked at even more clinically, the algorithm gives bonus points to pictures of your face, long captions, and when other people comment on your posts. (Which they inevitably do more often when you open up and “get real.”) Social media, like movies, is a forum where most of us want to see the highlight reels, even if they are culled from dark times in people’s lives. But if Instagram influences your state of mind when seeking to get sober or enter therapy, it may feel like everyone has their shit together but you. But through experience and simple logic, I know that this can’t be true.
Naturally, once you’re a few months into non-drinking, or over a year into therapy, as I am, you do in fact feel great about your decision to put down the booze for good and finally talk to someone about your shit. It's easy to feel evangelized or to want others to know how it feels to no longer wake up with pounding headaches and nausea, or how having a place where you can talk through your problems with someone completely free of judgement has had a positive impact on your mental state. In this moment of self-confidence is when many of us feel compelled to toss up a post online about our struggle. We talk about how, while the journey was hard, where we’re at now is better. The likes roll in, as do the comments telling us how awesome we are—and the dopamine starts flowing. It may be from a different source (i.e., not from mind-altering substances), but our brains like what they like, thus reinforcing the behavior to paint our mental health or addiction struggles with polished, curated brush strokes. By seeking validation of our progress, we may 1) be setting ourselves up for setbacks by not truly confronting our issues and 2) glorifying our own adversity to other’s detriment—in the process creating a mountain that seems to tall to climb for the thousands of people who want to take that first step but don’t know how.
There’s nothing capital-W Wrong with this behavior. But let’s be clear: Most “I got sober and I’m great now” posts are bullshit. See, you never “win” against mental health, you simply keep working at it. Yes, every—single—day. In fact, it’s the relentless, seemingly mundane choices to go to therapy every week or turn down a vodka soda at your friend’s birthday party that make progress so damn difficult, and why the hashtag-ification of things like sobriety and mental well-being have, ironically, a potentially discouraging underbelly to them. Pictures of people with six packs vacationing in Mykonos already can make otherwise confident folks feel like shit. But combine Mykonos, six packs, and a person set against a picturesque background going on and on about how they’ve overcome their addiction, and you may end up with a scud missile of insecurity aimed at those less fortunate. To make matters slightly more icky is the fact that we live in a country where access to good mental health care is criminally expensive, thus making mental health bragging also come across as elitist or tone deaf.
I do want to be clear that I don’t have all, or perhaps even any of the answers, and to suggest such would be antithetical to this piece. But I do know what methods have helped me feel better over the last year-plus, which include therapy, medication, CBD, exercise, and even a few audiobooks that have helped me gain perspective and re-shape the way I think, and thus the way I feel in difficult moments. (Say what you want about his approach, but Russell Brand’s book Recovery is packed with lessons on self-worth I think we all can get behind.) Still, in between these small wins have been many panicked days and sleepless nights in which I’ve felt confused, ashamed, sad, angry, hopeless, and generally lost.
Here are a few of my recs when it comes down to relaxing:
Ultimately, I’m not here to tell you to delete your accounts, or not to use social media as a way to regain power over the stigma of mental health. Opening up has, in fact, helped many, including myself, with not feeling ashamed about their mental health journey. I’m just saying that while, yes, help is out there—an influencer’s Instagram page is not the best place to find it. In my experience, there’s nothing can replace talking to people you trust about what you’re going through face to face. I’ve been surprised at how the things that made me feel alone are in fact experienced by people close to me. And I’m inclined to think that the more we actually connect with one another, the more we will find this to be true.