Last November, as winter continued to force more warmth and light out of the world outside, I too felt gripped by an inner darkness. I was struggling with a particularly severe bout of depression, my worst in over a year.
I needed help. If it got any worse, the suicidal thoughts in my head might turn into suicidal actions.
One of the psychiatrists I had seen earlier that month suggested that I call the Samaritans phone service in such a scenario. Not only for my benefit, but to avoid overburdening my partner with conversations that she finds difficult. It’s not easy to see a person you love hunched into the fetal position, absent of any feeling or hope, wishing that they no longer existed. Worse still: it’s often impossible to do anything that can help. Feelings of hopelessness become shared.
And so, crumpled on the sofa, I dialled 116 113 and listened to the phone ring. And ring. And no one answered.
No one cared about me, I thought. I called another suicide hotline called the ‘Crisis Service’ from Bristol Mental Health.
A woman answered. “Hello. What’s your name?”
“Hi Alex, how are you?’
“I’m sorry,” I said, and then I started to cry. I couldn’t stop. She said it was okay and that I should take my time.
Alone and frustrated, I headed to Twitter. If I couldn’t talk, I could type
I thought otherwise. Time is exactly what someone else might not have. With an already stretched and underfunded National Health Service, I was wasting her time while blocking the line for those other people who, in my imagination, were definitely in greater need than me. I wasn’t worth it.
I hung up. Alone and frustrated (mostly with myself), I headed to Twitter. If I couldn’t talk, I could type. I posted what had happened, and added that I was on an eight-month waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). “There is nothing,” I wrote. Then I waited for a response.
Everybody’s experience of social media is different. It’s the same with depression – a malady of emotions and thoughts, of social environment and genes. It’s unique to each person it affects.
It’ll come as little surprise, then, that making any general conclusions on how social media and depression interact is precarious.
There are some emerging patterns, however. Several studies since 2010, for example, have provided evidence that more frequent social media usage – in particular Facebook – can be associated with depression, or at least depression-like symptoms.
In 2016, a study of 1,787 people aged between 19 and 32 in the US found a relationship between how long people spent on social media sites each day and the number of depressive symptoms they experience. The more usage, the more hopeless, worthless, and helpless they felt.
But, as Liu yi Lin and her colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh noted, this doesn’t prove that social media itself is to blame. It could simply be that people with depression spend more time on social media. “Depressed individuals with a diminished sense of self-worth may turn to social media-based interactions for validation,” they wrote. Furthermore, social media may appeal more to these individuals than face-to-face interaction because it is easier to access and control.
To confuse matters more, there is also evidence that social media actually can be beneficial to mental wellbeing – perhaps because it can connect people who would otherwise feel isolated.
For me, social media isn’t good or bad. It can swing from one state to another just like my mental state. If I’m feeling healthy – if my antidepressants, therapy, and lifestyle choices are working – then it’s largely a useful tool to stay in step with the latest news, contact friends, and to make sure that nuclear armageddon hasn’t been unleashed.
If I am depressed, however, this relationship crumbles. Like the tentacles of a psychological kraken, my mental illness can reach into those worlds I have created online, touching each platform with a darkness from which no pleasure can be drawn.
Learning how to manage my time on social media is like finding the right antidepressant
Take Instagram. No matter what they show in reality, I know that the images on my feed will be coloured in a negative hue. A wildlife photographer’s shot of an endangered species – a polar bear or a bamboo lemur, say – feeds a misanthropic reaction against those responsible that sends me further into despair. A bustling street somewhere in the world, full of colour and life, reminds me that I can’t leave the flat. A photo of friends, how I can’t be with them.
In this state, I have learned to avoid social media and focus on the parts of life I can control: eating, sleeping, and trying to walk outside.
Last year, as an attempt to add a level of control to my social media usage, I deleted all the apps from my phone and my browser’s bookmarks. My accounts are still active; it’s just a little harder to get to them. But this tiny change, a few more clicks, provides an important separation between my life and those worlds that can sometimes cause it to spin. Plus I don’t get any surprising notifications.
For me, learning how to manage my time on social media is like finding the right antidepressant. Some approaches don’t work at all. A few can make things much worse. But one might be able to help. And if it does, there’s a period of finding the right dose – how much, how often, and when in the day to take them.
Back in November, after resorting to Twitter, I received a message in my direct messages folder. I opened it immediately. It was from a friend who I had met at university, someone I hadn’t seen or spoken to for many years. He said he was sorry to hear about what had happened. He told me that he was free anytime if I needed to talk.
I couldn’t reply – because I was crying (again).
It was an indication that someone did care, even just a little. (Depression has a way of tricking the mind into thinking that the contrary is true, even when you are surrounded by loved ones.) This message helped break that thought. Just for a second.
With this solid reminder on the screen in front of me, the next hours became easier. After a few days, my appetite returned. Sleep normalised. Interest in my surroundings came creeping back.
A week later, when I was feeling healthier, I returned to Twitter and thanked my friend for his message. It was a case in which social media actually helped my recovery from depression. It’s a complex relationship, one that can make me sink but, in rare cases, buoy me back to the surface.
Alex Riley is a science writer based in Bristol. He is currently working on a popular science book into how we treat depression around the globe.
To find someone to talk with in your country go to www.befrienders.org/directory. The International Association for Suicide Prevention has a list of global agencies that may also be able to provide immediate support.