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This Is What Teens Say on Social Media When They’re Depressed

New research encourages us to read between the lines of our friends’ “perfect lives” on Instagram and help them get the support they need — before it’s too late.

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Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering mental health, well-being, and redefining success among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Madison Holleran‘s Instagram showed her effortlessly perfect life as a college freshman. After all, she was a talented 19-year-old athlete at the University of Pennsylvania who seemed to have it all. But she killed herself on Jan. 17, 2014. 

Her story is a reminder to all of us that what our friends post on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media may not reflect their truth. Smiling faces, beautiful food, and joyful friends may be masking pain and turmoil in their lives.

We, along with our co-authors, recently completed a study that found that college students hint about their depression on Facebook, and their friends are unlikely to encourage them to seek help. We asked 33 college students who said they posted on Facebook about their depression about their depression levels, Facebook posts on depression, and perceptions of the type of support they received from their friends. We showed that the students in our sample commonly posted about their emotions (“I just said I felt so alone”), or that they were having a bad day. Some posted song lyrics that they thought would relay their depressed mood. No students talked about clinical indicators of a depression diagnosis (e.g., change in sleep, eating, loss in pleasurable activities, hopeless, etc.). Only two students specifically asked for help. 

I see our results reflected in Maddy’s story. Maddy left little clues of how she was feeling in her journal, her posts, and in her conversations with friends, family members, coaches, and her therapist. Maddy didn’t specifically say on Instagram, though, that she was depressed.

Much like the students in our study, she shared her struggles indirectly. She liked quotes and once posted a picture of a quote on Instagram from Seventeen Magazine: “Even people you think are perfect are going through something difficult.” 

Maddy wasn’t alone in her unwillingness or maybe inability to express her challenges with mental health, especially on social media sites like Instagram. While her family and friends did what they could to support her, including getting her a therapist, the challenges of mental health, the likely stigma associated with mental health and getting support, were too much for her to overcome. 

We certainly saw those issues in our study. We asked students how their friends responded when they posted about their struggles on Facebook. None of the students indicated that they were encouraged to seek help. The students reported that the most frequent responses to their posts were general support or motivating gestures. However, not all responses were supportive. Several of the students indicated that they have been suicidal at least several days over the past two weeks. One of those students said a friend responded by essentially saying, “Don’t post this on Facebook.” 

What our study shows is that we need to increase mental health literacy, decrease mental health stigma, and increase help-seeking supports and behaviors.  

Freshman at many universities receive information on mental health at their orientations.  Research shows, however, that mental health literacy needs to be taught throughout the college years. Public service campaigns need to be present throughout universities in digital and print media, which can both help increase literacy and decrease stigma. Finally, students need to learn about and have available mental health services at the university, online, and in the community. We need to meet students where they are so that unnecessary barriers don’t prevent them from getting the help they need. 

Universities can partner with technology-based services including Crisis Text Line (in the U.S., text HOME to 741741; Canada to 686868, or in the U.K. to 85258; www.crisistextline.org). There are peer-to-peer support resources available through TalkLife and/or TalkCampus (www.talklife.co).

Both as a society and in our own lives, we can’t afford to hide mental health struggles. Finding ways to reach out and support college students, and adults, can help reduce stigma so that individuals can get the help they need in a way that makes sense to them.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental illness and need support, please call the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) helpline, 800-950-6264. Or, in a crisis? Text NAMI TO 741741.

Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More Thrive on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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