“My name is XY and I’m an Instagram influencer. I may seem to have a perfect life, but behind my beautiful pictures is a tough mental health struggle.” FYI readers, this is not a “token Instagram influencer” meme. This is the main type of language used on TV by influencers discussing mental health, internet safety, social media and the pressure of sharing our lives online this week. As someone with a mental illness, an active Instagram profile where mental health is often discussed, and as a writer of a novel about mental illness and trauma, here are my two cents. Does mental health sell on Insta? Are we doing it right?
Totes not trying to be controversial over here, but I posted about this in my Insta stories and got a lot of responses so I thought it’d be good to have this conversation. I’ll be honest however: I myself overshare my mental health struggles on the ‘Gram. Plus, I LOVE social media. Without it, I would not have a job. After becoming the social media manager for a student society at uni, I got headhunted to manage a small recruitment agency’s social media, which led to PR internships and a career in PR and social media strategy.
Sure, I left PR because the day-to-day pressure of the job while trauma from my past was resurfacing had a negative impact on my mental health, but it taught me all I know. Through social media I market my blog and my novel, my pole dance progress and my career as an academic. I now teach social media alongside criminology at university and I actually enjoy creating content for a variety of platforms.
This isn’t an influencer bashing post either. While I wouldn’t call myself an influencer, because I don’t have followers in the hundreds of thousands and writing is my main business, I respect influencers’ hard work. Living off your posts and pictures isn’t easy: you are marketing yourself, and more often than not clients can avoid paying or pay late. You are always on. That shit’s hard work. So if you’re looking for a Luddite post, reader, this is not it. Go back to the Daily Express where you belong.
Influencers and Mental Health
What I have been noticing in the past few weeks is, however, a trend on social media that I am not enjoying. And that is the trend of mental health for views. With “mental health for views” I mean a variety of public-ish figures – influencers, bloggers, cats, whatever – that discuss mental health. The wrong way.
Is there a wrong way to discuss mental health, you ask? Well, personally I wouldn’t have been near where I am now if social media didn’t teach me that it’s ok to talk about your struggles. Through social media I realised that I’m not crazy (not too much, at least), and that my conditions (anxiety, PTSD, depression) are relatable, and shared by many people.
However, there is such thing as the wrong approach to mental health online. And recently I’ve read a lot of posts that were literally a plug for some product, or a mention in passing, to mental health struggles with a confusing message. It’s almost as if mental health is becoming yet another hack to get more views, to go to more events, to justify our need for attention.
Depression Is Not Your USP
As content creators, we have the responsibility to be honest with our audiences – not because we are their agony aunts, or because we owe them anything. More because if what we portray is not true, then we’re not writing a blog, or posting on an Insta feed: we are writing a weird graphic novel with our real face on it.
I don’t like naming and shaming, but if you post an airbrushed picture of yourself in a luxury hotel with fairies massaging your feet and unicorns bringing you breakfast, with the caption: “I’ve been really struggling,” it’s kinda like when I used to write “I AM SO SAD” on Facebook as a teen and when someone commented on my status I’d be like: “I DON’T WANNA TALK ABOUT IT.” It’s bringing attention to an issue that you are then not expanding on, and more worryingly it is painting a picture of mental illness that isn’t real.
I have stayed in luxury hotels through my writing and I’ve also used my writing to say I feel like shit. And trust me, when I feel like shit, I don’t look like I’m walking through a lavender field, or sipping champagne at the Savoy (still waiting for my invite, guys, btw! I look really cute when I drink champagne!). I don’t sashay on the streets of London clutching my (non-existent, another partnership I’m waiting for!) Chanel bag.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think people who claim to have mental health issues on social media are faking it. Considering the rising numbers of people diagnosed with mental illnesses, it’s only fair that many influencers will have them too. The issue is in how we talk about them.
I myself have posted travel pictures where I said how crap I’d been feeling for ages, and then I went on a trip and felt better. While I appreciate that not everybody might be able to afford a holiday (I myself can’t right now, sob), I try to put it into context, with an explanation. It’s not a quote about anxiety or depression with my face staring into the distance, looking dramatic.
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Hello! You may have noticed that I haven’t posted for a while. I’ve spent my summer in an intensive hospitalization program due to very severe anxiety and depression. My precious pug baby Bella @mrpickles_and_bella was also recently diagnosed with cancer. So it’s been a rough few months, to say the least. 💔
If you post that way, people will automatically think: I wish I had that life/looked that good after a panic attack etc. Which is why I think social media needs more transparency. Disclose your brand partnerships, your freebies, your gifts, or people will think you can afford them, or that you genuinely love them, when you are getting paid for them. And God, so many newbie bloggers are struggling with this: blogging is an expensive hobby, and if you pay for all your clothes, food, travels in the hope to build a good page on the ‘Gram, you’re in for bankruptcy.
Mental Health Hacks That Don’t Work For Real People
Another typical post in the mental health Insta picture trend is: “I felt really bad yesterday, but today I decided to found my own feminist party, I published three novels and starred in my own biopic.”
I am currently being treated both through talking therapy and CBT to address past trauma from my abusive relationship, but also to start respecting myself. And clearly, something in my damaged emo brain decided that my worth was determined by how much tasks and responsibilities I could fill my life with.
While my academic/pole dancer/writer/blogger unreadable Insta bio might sound cool, in fact this productivity myth, this “I cured my mental illness by becoming an overachiever/ taking up yoga/ skydiving” scenario is damaging first of all for you, and secondly for your followers.
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I’ve read loads of articles today about how #BlueMonday was the result of a marketing ploy and inaccurate research – and I kinda agree. Still, Mondays for me have been blue since November, when I started going back to therapy. Although it’s super helpful to be back in treatment, every Monday after my sessions I feel drained of all my energy because all the traumas I’ve buried for years are now resurfacing again. So when @moreyoga_ and @action_pr offered me a free #vinyasaflow class as part of their initiatives for the day, I jumped right in. Today, every MoreYoga studio has been running special ‘Blue Monday’ themed classes and I must say this evening’s session really helped me relax and stretch after such a tiring day. Thanks @dia.na.yoga for having me! I might actually take up #yoga again. 📸: @dia.na.yoga #spon #ad
Beware of quick fix solutions. True, pole dancing has massively helped my confidence, it helps me express myself through a weird blend of filthy darkness that puzzles most people but that works for me, and helps me release the tension. It helps me be in the moment: if I think about anything else rather than where my hands and legs need to be, I will break my neck. So no overthinking when I’m upside down. It helps me feel like a sexy, towering glamazon for a couple of hours a day.
Still, no matter how great pole has been for me, it didn’t stop me from having one of my worst panic attacks a couple of weeks back just a few of hours after training. The endorphins had gone, and pole or not, I was still crying on the floor recording voice messages to my loved ones. Not #Instagramgoals, and not a quick fix.
If you have a social media platform with a big following, you have a tool that might turn you into an advocate, and if you have the views, the attitude, the words of an advocate, when your pictures don’t reflect what you’re saying it all seems a bit jarring – and it might be damaging to people you are hoping to inspire.
My coping strategies work for me. I can’t impose them on other people and I don’t want people to take them up, because they might not work for them. I am just telling my story, learning from my mistakes. There is no quick fix: Instagram is not your therapist.
Should I Share My Mental Health Online?
I think it’s important to realise that if you don’t want to share your mental health struggles, you don’t have to. They won’t necessarily make you look relatable if sharing them doesn’t come natural to you. If your Insta is branded, about your fashion, your travels, you don’t have to add mental health to it to be more likeable. No need to be Damage Queen/King if talking about it in public doesn’t work for you.
One note on sharing, too, is: beware of triggers, both when you’re posting and when talking to people. What seems so normal to you might cause someone else to flip. And be ready, if you are so open about mental health, to receive messages asking for advice – and be ready to set your boundaries.
If you are reading this and have thought of messaging someone to ask for advice about your case, please, for God’s sake, ASK before you share your struggles and traumas with people. I have woken up to messages from a suicidal acquaintance that wrote to me because she read about my experience on my blog. Sometimes, I receive really graphic stories of abuse by readers who mean well, but that actually trigger my flashbacks. So consent and sensitivity are key when talking about mental health online. Which is why it shouldn’t be just thrown in the mix out of context.
The main issue here is: who’s responsible for your perfect life and your perfect pictures? You. Sure, brands might want you to style your pictures a certain way to work with you, but I’ve personally worked with brands who liked my tone and sincerity. I also lost touch with others, and that’s life. If it bothers you that people think that your life is all rainbows and white clouds, if it bothers you that it looks so perfect, well… don’t make it look perfect. You are your own editor.
My viewers have begun engaging with me so much more since I have started being honest. I do so much stuff, it’s left me burnt out and it’s not even February. If people thought the amount of things I do feels easy for me, and that it has no effect on me, I’d be lying.
My Instagram is a weird blend of my pole progress, food, travel and events shared in my own way, through my own voice. When I make a move that looks wonky, or that needs work, I write that; when I don’t get into a competition, I write that. If my mental health is so shit that I have to get off the ‘Gram for a while, I write that. Because sometimes I just don’t want to be interesting anymore, or because sharing my failures as much as my successes helps me process them.
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Hello Instagram, I’ve been trying to keep this “1 post a day” thing up for a while but now that I’m back in Italy for a couple of weeks I’ve decided to take a week’s break or something. I actually really enjoy posting, it’s a different form of content creation, and I’ve got so much stuff to share. But my depression/anxiety/PTSD combo is back with a bang, I had one of my worst crises yesterday and the festive period has been really hard so I can’t actually think of anything useful to say, and I can’t face replying. Having depression while being so lucky and so fucking ambitious really sucks because it feels unjustified and it often goes unnoticed or it’s met with disbelief. I originally thought it was just hormones, and I’ve done really enjoyable things in the past month and year, but I have to face the fact that I either switch off for a while or things will get worse. When I’m struggling I go on this weird social media checking loop, as if answers for my worries and doubts would come through my phone, which turns my stress into a vicious circle. Ultimately, not posting content for a week won’t change my or your life. If you want to get in touch, send me a text or a FB message I’ll probs check those. One of my #newyearresolutions is to look after myself better so this is what I’m doing: enjoying my time here is what matters right now. Can’t let my stupid brain win! 💪🏼
Everybody has a different tone and aim for their profiles, and my way might not work for everybody. Every writer/blogger/influencer has their own way of sharing their content, and I follow a lot of content creators that talk about mental health without it feeling forced. Filthyratbag and Gemma Correll, above, are an example, and there are some more below:
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1 month into 2019 and it couldn’t feel any longer. January was a challenging month for me and I had to face some of my darkest demons. One of them was addressing the toxicity of selflessness and how it led me to heartbreak. I reflect on this on my blog, and how it’s tightly linked to the role cis and straight women often take in romantic relationships. Link in bio. #travelwithmer #writersofinstagram #feministblogger #breakuprecovery #toxicrelationship #selfrealization #awarewolf #tocicfemininity #vulnerability #personalgrowthjourney #feministperspectives #writetotravel
The (Working) Guide To Being Real About Mental Health Online
I feel like this post was a weird exercise in getting things off my chest, but let’s just conclude on a constructive note cause #goals, right?
If you want to talk about mental health on social media, please remember:
- Don’t be the token influencer meme: if you worry about your life appearing too perfect, make it looks less perfect. Way less pressure on you and on everyone else that way
- Disclose your partnerships – it’s not only about not breaking the law, it’s about being transparent with your followers
- Beware of triggers
- Don’t overdo the productivity chat
- Ask for help (to your therapist)
- Context is key: “I always need to get out of my routine to feel energised” is different from “I stayed in this super high end luxury hotel and that cured my depression AND my cellulite!”
I am really keen on hearing all your thoughts on this, so please share this, comment on this, contradict me, whatevz. Tell me what you think! I don’t want to be a self-righteous Susan about this and I make my dumb mistakes, so let’s chat.