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The Limits of #MentalHealth Content

Online mental health content can have benefits and downsides.

Key points

  • Online mental health content can be interesting, useful, and validating.
  • Downsides include offering untrue information, reinforcing blind spots, and downplaying the difficulty of change.
  • We tend to seek out information that fits what we already believe, and we tend to ignore or discount information that doesn’t fit.
 Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash
Is #MentalHealth content helping or hurting you?
Source: Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash

#MentalHealth content is everywhere online.

As someone who has spent a great deal of time and effort working to “give psychology away” by writing more than 100 Psychology Today articles, eight books, dozens of videos, and, yes, many social media posts, I think this is great! But I also think we need to be wise about understanding the benefits and limitations of #MentalHealth content.

Possible Benefits of #MentalHealth Content

At its best, online mental health content shares bite-size bits of information that are useful and spark people's curiosity to learn more about psychological topics. Who doesn't enjoy an interesting little tip or fact? Social media is entertaining, and sometimes a small tip is all we need to solve a small problem. A small tip could also help someone begin to move in a new direction.

Therapists who are active online or on social media tend to be friendly and accessible, which could reduce fear of seeking therapy and lessen stigma about whatever difficulties someone might be experiencing. It feels good to realize, "I'm not the only one dealing with this!" or "There's hope and help for me!"

Possible Problems With #MentalHealth Content

There are also possible downsides to online content about mental health. Some of it is just plain not true or not helpful. But there are also other possible downsides that are easy to see when we compare online mental health content with what happens in psychotherapy.

Inaccurate self-diagnosis: Lists of symptoms can encourage people to self-diagnose mental disorders. This can lead to unnecessary worry as well as ineffective responses.

A lot of "weird" behaviors are actually typical. A trained therapist sees symptoms in context, considers their impact, and explores patterns to understand what contributes to the symptoms. For instance, "inattention" might be a function of ADHD, or it might be related to anxiety or depression or situational circumstances or lack of sleep or unrealistic expectations about personal productivity. Being more quiet than others in a social setting could be a sign of social anxiety or difficulties with processing speed, or it could stem from a cultural difference or a personal preference.

Reinforcing blind spots: Online mental health content can lead us to see only what we want or expect to see.

We all have a "confirmatory bias," which means we tend to seek out information that fits what we already believe, and we tend to ignore or discount information that doesn’t fit. Search algorithms are likely to compound this bias.

For example, if we think our partner is “distant,” we might read or watch a lot of online material about distant partners, which could intensify our tendency to notice all the times that our partner doesn’t respond the way we want and overlook their caring actions or what we do that makes it harder for the partner to be close.

In psychotherapy, one of the mechanisms for change is to help clients view themselves or their situation in a new way, from a different perspective. A good therapist can help us see what we didn’t see before. This might involve challenging our assumptions about ourselves or others, pointing out patterns in how we react, or opening our eyes to other possible ways of responding that differ from what we’re used to doing.

Judgmental attitude: Some providers of online mental health content offer a lot of blaming posts that judge others, such as friends who are "toxic," parents who are "in denial," or partners who are "narcissistic." Focusing on what's wrong with other people is usually unhelpful, arrogant, and unkind.

In psychotherapy, spending a lot of time talking about someone else's flaws and failings is usually a waste of time. We can't change other people. We can only decide how we, ourselves, want to think, act, and communicate. Sitting in judgment of everyone else might give some smug satisfaction, but it doesn’t help us move forward.

People are complicated. In psychotherapy, progress often involves coming to understand ourselves and others in more nuanced and layered ways. For example, we might recognize a loved one's problematic behavior but also learn to see them with compassion. This makes us better equipped to choose how we will respond so that we are respectful of both ourselves and them.

Lack of boundaries: Some providers of online mental health content talk a lot about their own struggles with the goal of being "real." On one level, this can be validating and destigmatizing. On another level, self-revelation is something that therapists are trained to be careful about because crossing boundaries by revealing too much personal information can burden clients.

All psychotherapists draw upon their own life experiences, and few people believe it's helpful or even possible for therapists to be a completely "blank slate" with clients. However, before disclosing personal information, good psychotherapists ask themselves, "Am I sharing this for my client's benefit or my own?"

Burdening clients with the therapist’s own struggles or triumphs takes the focus off the client and puts it on the therapist. It can also lead to pressure ("You should do what I did!"), comparisons ("Am I coping better or worse than my therapist?"), and feelings of invalidation ("My therapist thinks our situation is the same, but it's not!”).

When therapists share too much, it can make the relationship feel more like a friendship than therapy. This might seem nice, but it’s problematic because it raises expectations of mutual support, rather than giving the client space to concentrate just on themselves. It can also make it harder when the therapist needs to offer some uncomfortable feedback ("She's not being a good friend by saying that!") or when the client is ready to move on.

Downplaying the difficulty of change: Skimming through mental health content online is easy. Change is hard.

Quick tips make it seem like "people should just…” to solve their problems. This attitude can make us feel discouraged or inadequate if we can't easily snap out of difficulties. People are complicated, and real change often involves a lot of time, effort, backsliding, adjusting, and trying again.

Often people say they know exactly what they "should" do, but something is getting in the way of them doing it. In therapy, we can examine our "shoulds" to see if they fit our current values. We might also think about the circumstances that help or hinder us from making the choices we want. We might need to learn to recognize and modify our old, automatic responses, develop new strategies to meet our goals, practice new skills, or gain confidence by doing things that feel difficult and uncomfortable.

Just a beginning…

Online mental health content is often interesting, and it can be genuinely helpful. But it’s only a beginning. Just like with therapy, we need to decide what we're going to do with it. With my clients, I often point out that the most important part of therapy is what happens between sessions. The goal, for all of us, is to figure out what we are going to do next to create a life that’s meaningful and satisfying.

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