Is Instagram fuelling the mental health crisis?

18 Sep 2018


There are few platforms as glamorous and lively as Instagram. With hundreds of millions of people liking, commenting, and posting photos every day, the social media giant has become a platform where friendships are forged and strong communities are built.


"I want this so much," one teenager comments on their friend's post.


"Oh ffs this is attention seeking," another counteracts.


But the post they are referring to isn't a picture of the latest overpriced coat or trendy café. It's a photo of a woman's wrist covered in deep, self-inflicted cuts.


This is the darker side of Instagram. Yes, you do have to go looking for posts like these, but they really aren't tricky to find. The hashtag #selfharmmm has been used over 2 million times. Not all the photos are graphic - many are quotes suggestive of suicide such as "you hate me? So do I," or "no one would miss me."


These deeply disturbing posts can act as "triggers" to other vulnerable users. The blog defines a trigger as "any act or event that serves as a stimulus and initiates a reaction or series of reactions. In relation to self-harm, a trigger is anything that gives you the urge to harm yourself."


This pretty accurately describes how the users I spoke to felt about the graphic images appearing on their screens. One teenager described triggering images as "really unhelpful for those suffering from mental illness".


However, every community has its cultures and this one is most definitely no exception. Teenagers encourage each other to put "trigger warnings" on posts, thus allowing them to share their images without negatively affecting others. A trigger warning acts like a cover to a book, describing what is inside so users can decide whether to swipe and reveal the next image, or choose to keep scrolling without seeing anything they don't want to.


Unfortunately not all users are so considerate. Abusive messages are littered everywhere, almost exclusively coming from online trolls or judgemental outsiders.


"You will get the occasional horrible and really disgusting comments," one young woman tells me. "I've been told to kill myself."


Within just a few minutes of searching through comment sections I find a whole catalogue of insults, from the fairly standard "you are such an idiot!", to the darker "hand be lookin' like a steak."


When I started this investigation, these were the stories I expected. It's easy to take one look into this desperate, twisted community and assume that it's nothing but a force for evil. As an outsider, it's hard to see past the gory videos and suicidal quotes - but the more I talked, and the deeper I dug, the more I discovered kindness in the most unexpected places.

Last year, Theresa May pledged an extra 10,000 staff for NHS mental health services, but many say this is still not enough to meet demand


'A' is a teenage boy who runs a support page for people struggling with their mental health. He's asked me not to disclose his real name - his parents and schoolmates don't know about his account. He's incredibly sweet and speaks to me eloquently, despite English being his second language. When he grows up he wants to become a writer, but he struggles to fit in at school.


"I have no friends at my school," he tells me. "I get bullied and I feel so different from, and more mature, than everyone else."


Sadly, his story reflects a much bigger picture. A report by the Children's Society estimates that 109,000 teenagers in the UK self harmed in 2015. 'A' hasn't self harmed in over 8 months, but he tells me that a recent move of schools has taken a toll on his mental health.


"I've been so close to relapsing recently. Even right now the urge to relapse is really bad. I really don't know if I can stay clean much longer. It's so hard."


Despite this, A's story is a tribute to the positive impact that Instagram can have for people struggling with their mental health. His page is packed full of inspirational quotes and kind messages to his followers. He answers messages every day, giving people advice on everything from how to deal with bad thoughts, to how they can tell their parents that they self harm. 


"It affects me in a positive way." He says. "Of course I get to know about people's problems but that doesn't really bother me. I know I'm helping others and that makes me feel good about myself."


'A' met his best friend on Instagram. "My best friend (online, she is from Sweden) means the world to me and together with writing is the only thing that gives me an escape from my issues & makes me happy", he writes in a message to me. "I could rant for hours about how amazing she is haha, I love her so much."


There's a strong sense of camaraderie within this online community. People from all over the globe who grapple with similar experiences can connect like never before in history.


"People who can relate to my story usually talk to me and we help each other out to find a solution to get better," another user tells me. 


However, it's questionable how sound these "solutions" really are. While people like 'A' provide genuine advice aimed at recovery, some others idolise self-harm or encourage reckless behaviour.


"Yo I have a blade in my room so at any time I can lend it to people like you," someone comments on a photo depicting a woman's arms and legs covered in blood. "It's super sharp like...guarantee deep cuts and if u sliced ur jugular vein u would die in like 3 minutes...good shit man...really painful too from all the fans of extreme self harmers." 


Not all #proselfharm posts and comments are so overt. Many depict self harm as tragically romantic. Black and white pictures of blood running out of open wounds; the words "Don't be surprised when I disappear," with an atmospheric photo of a street-lit alleyway in the background. 


In this backwards part of the internet, deeper cuts mean more likes.


Young people struggling with their mental health are turning to Instagram, desperate to find a sense of belonging. We need to ask ourselves why. Why are so many teenagers turning to strangers for help? Why are children as young as twelve sharing stories of suicide attempts?


We shouldn't necessarily be pointing the finger at Instagram. Does it aggravate the situation? Probably. Is the online environment often toxic and deeply disturbing? Certainly. Is it the root cause of teenagers' problems? No.

Although statistics show that the situation is improving, there is still a huge stigma around mental health. "It makes people too scared to speak out about it." the owner of a mental health recovery memes account tells me. "It shouldn’t be such a hush hush topic that nobody talks about ever or if they do, talk very awkwardly about. It should be as normal as “I’ve got the cold” or “last night I had a nosebleed”."


A study from See Me, a charity trying to tackle mental health stigma, reveals that only 37% of young people in Scotland said they would tell someone if they were finding it difficult to cope with their mental health.


I've had to keep all my sources anonymous because almost none of them have told even their closest friends or family about their Instagram accounts. Many of them are terrified that their parents will discover that they cut themselves. 'A' says his dad would be mad if he ever found out he self-harmed. 


In cases like this, vulnerable children are being left to care for each other over the internet. Instagram has put in place precautions to try and ensure their customers can access help if they need it. When searching for hashtags such as #selfharm, a banner pops up on the screen warning that: 'Posts with the words or tags you're searching often encourage harm and even lead to death. If you're going through something difficult, we'd like to help.'  It then asks the user if they want to 'get support' or 'see posts anyway'..


This might seem like a halfhearted effort. However, trying to enforce a blanket ban on anything self-harm related rather than trying to tackle the root cause would likely just push this part of the internet even deeper underground. Teenagers aren't stupid. They already dodge existing regulations prohibiting pictures that "glorifying self injury" by misspelling words like #selfharmmm or creating code names such as #sue (meaning suicide). 


Stifling conversation around mental health would also cut off the support network that so many young people rely on. They've built long lasting friendships and it's given so many people reassurance that they don't have to struggle alone. To find the cruel comments, I had to scroll through a barrage of loving and positive ones.


"I think people post stuff like that so somebody will know," one user says, "If it is hard for them to open up and tell people they know [in person] about their MH they can just tell a bunch of strangers so at least their story is told."


This darker side of Instagram is a world of untold stories. A world where fourteen year old boys convince strangers not to take their own lives. A world where teenage girls are told that it's glamorous to commit suicide. 


Only one question remains: Where are the adults?



A Backbench report by Jess Insall





A's mental health support page can be found on Instagram @mentalhealthsupport14


If you are affected by any of the issues raised by this article Samaritans is available 24 hours a day and provides a safe and confidential place to talk:


Phone: 116 123







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