DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 16: MENTAL HEALTH AND MEDIA I
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. For the next two months, we will look at the interplay of how media, particularly social media, has taken a massive influence on how we perceive mental health of both ourselves and others.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH
MENTAL HEALTH IN MEDIA I: OVERVIEW
“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Looking at the cliche statement that is “there is no such thing as bad press…”
…can oddly help us better understand the current state of mental health in relation to the media and how the concept has evolved. Assuredly, the raw awareness and idea of essentially ‘broadcasting’ the benefits of discussing mental health was an enormous positive breakthrough for a topic which was stigmatized as any for much of world history. But with this discussion– like any of the sort– came much misinterpretation and misinformation. While it is likely true that there is more mental health awareness than ever before, and therefore more correct information around the topic than ever before, we must also hold awareness that such a complex and abstract concept is particularly vulnerable to overgeneralization, contradicting viewpoints, and potentially harmful misconceptions.
A MODERN DILEMMA
Regarding the United States, the position which we currently stand with mental health is, broadly, in the natural line of development with other social issues. We could say that from the advent of the country through the emancipation proclamation, women’s suffrage, civil rights movement and recent social movements for LGBTQ and countless others that the perception of acceptance has grown from the initial position of wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Christian landowners to slowly progress towards social acceptance of more and more populations. While we have certainly not reached utopia and face many problematic systemic ramifications that still very much exist, we can at the least say that things have progressed greatly when comparing 1776 to 1876 to 1976.
But what makes mental health unique is that it is not only all-encompassing, but also interplays with virtually all other demographic dynamics. To even call this article “mental health in media'' is almost too broad— the representation and understanding varies so much between conditions, ethnicities, genders, SES classes, and similar facets that no single determination on the state of this situation could ever be deemed "factual ". All individuals with a specific mental health condition may have similar roots, but the most prominent differentiator of presentation and management is going to be environmental and specific to each individual’s genetics. To use another medical parallel— we understand what it means to get a paper cut, we have likely experienced it, but we also don’t fear nor ignore it. We compartmentalize that people with bloodclotting issues might have a much more severe reaction, we understand that an untreated infection can turn this benign problem into a serious one, but we see the distinction and comprehend why this is a fear for some but not us (or why we should be afraid).
Concepts such as anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, and similar do not receive such continuum perceptions; we are much more likely to perceive the differences between these conditions as a binary “no existence”/”extreme adversity”, and innately this leads to the idea that one must be at a certain ‘threshold’ to have a ‘valid’ condition. Mental health views in the present are more similar to looking at the cut example and saying “If I am bleeding the wound must be fatal, otherwise I will never bleed”. In my personal opinion, the next step of mental health awareness is looking at all conditions as large spectrums rather than a black and white “have it”/”don’t have it” perspective.
PROS AND CONS OF MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS
Considering the ways that we can improve mental health, it is clear that mixed awareness is better than no awareness. This being said, we must remain cognizant that with more discussion and spotlight on such a complex and widely ranging topic, the more false information that is inherently going to be spread with it. You may recall from an article a few months ago how the historical progression of autism “treatment” is still far from thriving in the present day, but has to be seen as progress regardless. Considering how we got to our modern understanding of autism, there is nothing pretty about a majority of treatments assuming this was something that needed to be “fixed” or “corrected” before finally recognizing that the solution was to work with, rather than against symptoms. Though far from ideal, it was an improvement from just not addressing individuals with the condition at all.
Another reframe of perceptions of mental health in the media can be seen more fully when considering the very nature of ANY representation portrayed in media is typically altered for some reason. As someone in my cohort once said about this topic, “embellishment is what makes something fiction rather than nonfiction!”. When considering typical reactions to movie biographies of actual people or events, book adaptations, and media that is “based on a true story”, we are almost always going to find criticism specific to misrepresentation, assumptions, and exaggerations that the presentation did not account for/added externally. Even documentaries can be framed a certain way by a director/editor, so perhaps when discussing mental health in media as somehow correct or representative in certain aspects, we should also account for the fact that any media portrayal of something is inherently vulnerable to bias and misrepresentation.
A final angle worth highlighting is the idea that, historically, new and bold concepts tend to have a volatile social perception before finally settling as a normative piece of the culture. A great example exists when we look at the rising rates of neurodivergence: this was first thought to be a health crisis being caused by something (i.e. vaccines, sugar, etc), then looked at as a secondary problem of overdiagnosis, but finally rounded out to conclude that neurodivergence was probably not something that just came into existence, but rather just came into recognition. While we cannot– and I mean psychologically, cannot– just change out of hardwired perceptions even at a moderate pace, we can understand that the shift of how we see mental health is similar to a shift in public sanitation once germ theory was first introduced. While this perhaps seems like the most rational, logical conclusion in hindsight from a society which clearly understands how infection spreads, there were many who doubted the correlation as they could not see any viruses. We must try to consider that this could indeed easily seem like a skeptical claim to some when removing the century of social normalization that we now benefit from.
MEDIA EFFECTS ON MENTAL HEALTH– LITERALLY
We would be remiss not to include the direct interaction between mental health and media, particularly social media, as there are a plethora of considerations that may eventually become prominent focuses on mental health management going forward.
The internet is RIPE with many terrifying, unsettling, and largely fear-inducing statistics around the dangers of social media, and while you can very easily access these with a quick search, I am not particularly a proponent of panic leading to solutions. We will generalize by putting it simply and say that the longer that social media is around, the more negative and harmful responses that statistically rise amongst populations using it. Here are some of the most important things to know amongst many jarring statistics.
First and foremost, I feel intensely inclined to reiterate that most brain scans showing average social media addiction would look no different than even the hardest narcotic addictions. We must look at social media addiction from a neurotransmitter perspective much like we would look at any addiction. A phone becoming an all-encompassing dopamine reward loop is arguably easier to become dependent on than most substances with less barriers towards getting there. The normalization of complete binge type behaviors around technology is rampant, and, perhaps most dire, technology is an unavoidable necessity of living life to most these days.
Anxiety is one of three particularly vulnerable conditions, and studies do actually suggest that social media exacerbates these symptoms with more and more use. Issues with things such as insecurity, rumination, comparison, and worst case scenario thinking are at higher risk considering the problems derived from the toxic patterns seen in social media. With an explicit goal of trying to get the most provocative information to the predetermined most-provoked profile as fast as possible, it is not hard to see how we feel so flustered and overwhelmed so often in response to social media. Depression and body image issues are the other two conditions deemed particularly at risk of worsening with social media use, which is unsurprising given the competitive and fabricated idealistic norms seen on most social media platforms.
But with most impact, it’s unfortunate but vital to remember that most social media design indeed intends for these patterns, as many are using techniques that are designed to manipulate the reward center to keep individuals using the platform for as long as possible. Our brain may therefore be perceiving us to “need” more social media using the same signals as natural body functions; Unlike feeling tired, hungry, or sore, overriding these signals is actually to our advantage.
MEDIA EFFECTS ON MENTAL HEALTH– SUBCONSCIOUSLY
Now, unfortunately, the explicit feelings and ramifications from social media can only be seen as the tip of the iceberg in some senses.
A grander and perhaps more problematic issue that we are seeing in regards to mental health and media is how the content of what we are intaking begins to create a completely curated perception of reality that we can, essentially, choose to believe with validation. An easy example would be AI-generated or altered humans becoming the new standard of beauty; with editing effects and even recent bursts of technology improvement in digital art creation, we may now be quite literally holding ourselves to an impossible standard. But further, this can create ambiguity around the very ability to validate; media creates an opportunity to reframe anything in any way that will suit whatever agenda the platform is aligning with, and therefore the concept of “fake news” can also spread as far as what could be best described as media gaslighting, preventing truthful counter evidence from appearing at all. While the idea of not being able to trust anything in the media is a wise consideration to hold, it also can snowball to lack of trust in anything.
On the flip side of this concept is what we would call an echo chamber effect, which is to say that there is almost inevitably going to be some media form that someone can use to artificially validate and confirm something that, through media, they can believe as undeniably correct. An echo chamber occurs when a group of people with homogenous opinions reinforce and confirm their views with distinct lack of counter evidence or opinion. Not only are these situations detrimental to obvious progressions such as unity, compromise, and understanding, but further utilize peer pressure and group thinking principals to more or less distract many in the discussion from even considering personal opinion or counterarguments.
And in a more longitudinal manner, we have begun to see how desired activities of humans have shifted in favor of media perception over actual self care. While behaviors that accommodate status-seeking, vanity, and materialism are certainly no newly-observed responses to feelings around insecurity or perfectionism, we now see not only an easy and accessible medium to do so on, but also as much (or more) competitive provocation to insinuate that others should be following suit. While I cannot claim that any of these activities are not thoroughly enjoyed, and certainly could be perceived as ignorant towards people who genuinely find pleasure in these types of activities, there is an increasing sense of obligation and competition towards recreation, leisure, and self-enjoyment which has seemed to create unwanted and toxic anxiety in a realm of life that we would ideally see the least of such worries with.
HOW CAN WE COUNTER THESE ISSUES?
Well… we cannot stop it. I feel inclined to emphasize that this issue of social media influencing mental health has already permeated society like the ocean would a sunken ship. This being stated, our best approach may then be to learn to work with technology rather than against it. The following are a few ways we may be able to implement this.
THE KERNEL OF TRUTH
One thing that is perhaps surprising to start off with is that there are definitely many useful ways that media has helped mental health. The issue in today’s world could be argued not actually due to the information given but rather how it becomes interpreted, which is why seeing the kernel of truth– or focus on core accuracy at the heart of a message while accounting for additional presence of incorrect or exaggerated information otherwise– can create a more healthy and critical view of mental health in media. Of all the movie portrayals (stay tuned for next month’s article!) that we have seen on mental health, we can most safely say that almost all had some truth to what they intended towards, and almost all had some bias and misrepresentation/ungeneralizable representation. Even in the presence of horrible misrepresentation, it can become a catalyst to critical discussion in the public eye to get to a more accurate representation. And if even one individual feels connected to a character and chooses to seek more information on how to improve their quality of life because of the representation, that is an extremely powerful vessel that can reach far stretches.
THE EVOLUTION OF CONTROVERSY
As is true in many (if not all) social movements, what seems controversial and wrong at first may later be seen as heroic and impactful. Additionally, we cannot truly know how to most correctly do anything without a litany of errors, mistakes and setbacks prior. While media portrayals of mental health are almost inherently going to receive criticism, it is also a boost towards progress and normativity with each further representation. A good example of this would be when the show South Park announced they were releasing an episode featuring Tourette’s Syndrome– being one of the more edgy television shows at the time, the Tourette’s Syndrome Association was obviously bracing for the worst and hypervigilant to assess what collateral damage could potentially occur. Their reaction to the episode ended up being surprisingly positive, stating that the portrayal was “well researched and served as a clever device” for raising awareness– and the conclusion of this particular episode actually highlights how much more children in the special olympics have accomplished than the neurotypical children. Though a show perceived as having offensive and risque elements may seem like a hotbed for harmful controversy, they also have one of the most unique platforms to display accurate portrayal to individuals who would possibly be more likely to comprehend the message through a comfortable medium than consider a media outlet that does not align with their own perceptions. Much like I would not be very well received as a therapist if I spoke to clients only in the most technical, advanced and esoteric psychology jargon, we may not comprehend something due to unfamiliarity of presentation much more often than not agreeing with it. Examples such as this highlight that alternative or unexpected depictions may also connect concepts for a wider audience.
INDIVIDUAL ACCOUNTS > GENERALIZED CONCLUSIONS
another potential contradictory statement that I will make is that in most cases, I do actually believe that anyone who strongly relates to memes, recurring issues, life ‘quirks’, or personal accounts posted by other individuals with their condition online is likely to have something connected to that condition. The logic here is simply these formats giving a more accurate message in counter to the difficulty of explaining largely intangible symptoms. For example, it is hard to describe the details of large emotional changes simply using words, and when I say ‘emotional swing’ as a person with a massive emotional range, my definition might be unrecognizably different from how I intend it when received by a person who has a much shorter emotional range. We may state we agree, but the truth is that we actually have no idea what the other means. If instead I use a picture of a little fish floundering in a 100 foot swell next to an athletic surfer riding the wave with grace using the caption of “surfing was fun, they said!” to describe my feelings of overwhelm and insufficiency, this sends exponentially more information that clearly articulates my specific feeling. Those relating with the interpretation are now even more likely to agree, and the aforementioned shorter-ranged emotions individual is going to see the difference between my experience and theirs rather than conflate two very different perceptions.
Going to reputable websites for mental health discussion that have formats such as forums, user commenting, and similar to allow individuals to each describe their experience is not particularly far off from group therapy, and may help others understand their symptoms in a new and helpful way. We also have thousands of differing accounts, which is a great way to view the similarities and differences of a condition like no medium has allowed before. While it is inherently dangerous to assume you have depression because you read an article that showed people with your traits in your demographic are likely depressed, relating to hundreds of online accounts of depression from individuals who experienced the condition is much more likely to be significant information to proceed further with. While many fear the “hypochondriac” stereotype of learning diagnoses and immediately believing they have them, this is a direct barrier to the concept of looking at mental health conditions on spectrums, and considering we are slightly impacted by something is far more beneficial than ignoring it. Obviously this will likely not be enough to replace professional services, but the further understanding of what symptoms one is experiencing, the better quality of help can be sought.
TERROR MANAGEMENT APPROACH
As seen with cigarettes, prominently, but many other campaigns as well, we can say with solid evidence that people do not actually respond to quitting things because they are told those behaviors are unhealthy. Life is too anxiety-provoking in the present to have the ability to adequately view something in the future, and therefore a strategy of scaffolding, or slowly reducing social media usage day by day, has a much higher chance of success. While asking many social media users to stop completely is nearly impossible given the addictive nature of media usage, spending less and less time online and identifying which specific apps could be reduced more than others is a more realistic approach. This in itself can also be a helpful way to look at what tends to be more problematic with media– just taking notice of how different types of media usage can have different reactions or effects within us can be a helpful beginning point to noticing the effects that we feel, and noticing present uncomfortability is a much more effective catalyst to making actual change.
THE PROBLEM AS THE SOLUTION?
And continuing on that, the irony of technology is that it can assist us to do great non-media activities better than anything else ever has before as well. One way to look at this is that we probably intend to use our phones to do something or gain information initially most of the time, it is just that the phone is designed masterfully to keep us on it. Utilization of media can make for the highest, most utopian quality of life– but using media appropriately just might be impossible due to the way that things are set up. Just keeping this in mind can make us more conscious about going on our phone, and if we do avoid being ‘sucked in’, we may gain hours and hours of life back just off of one simple override. A personal favorite strategy was turning my phone to black and white– much of the dopamine received from scrolling comes from color, and this created far less “mindless” activity on my phone and more direct intention. After a year of doing this, I saw almost three hours less per day compared to the one before. Another way that has seen some success is viewing time on your phone as taking dopamine “away” from time other places– accurate enough to be true here– and considering that the less time that we spend on the phone, the more enjoyable we will find all other activities.
We can use the famous late 1980’s film Rain Man as a great microcosm of mental health in the media. At the time, the film (which depicted an individual with autism) was seen as progressive for breaching such a taboo subject. Quite literally millions of people credited the movie as the reason for their initial awareness of autism, and statistics reflect that diagnoses for the condition have exponentially risen since the movie was released. We cannot deny the benefit and growth that this film at least contributed to sparking awareness in the field.
But all this being said, we must also consider the inherent problems that developed along with awareness. Foremost, while we cannot discredit the exposure to autism in general, the movie created a very specific and discrepant view of the condition which people seemed to take as law. The main character is seen to have savant abilities of card counting, but otherwise socially inept and largely unable to function in society. While this is not false information, to assume that this presentation fully encapsulates the condition would be the same as watching the movie The Wolf of Wall Street and assuming that every single businessperson in the country behaves in the same extreme ways as the main character despite the very purpose of being a discrepant example. The movie similarly brings awareness to a culturally unaddressed issue— but very importantly, using an extreme, defined and exaggerated caricature of the concept, not an average or generalizable portrayal.
While we must also take perspective and realize mental health has exponentially grown into a household topic thanks to an explosion of awareness largely facilitated by the media, it is paramount to understand that even the most cutting edge understanding of mental health is still developing daily. Though not a direct one, we can look at the advent of medical discoveries in the early 20th century for comparison. If we can remember that we are at the point of advanced medication, nanotechnology, and cyborg appendages only due to hundreds of years of failing with leeches, bloodletting, and similar primitive approaches, we may have a better concept of why the idea of mental health understanding is so slow and misunderstood.
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
MENTAL HEALTH AND MEDIA II: REPRESENTATION
We will continue our discussion here next month with a focus on representation in the media, giving examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Additionally, we will discuss more ways in how progress in awareness can be seen as a necessary evil in some facets.
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