Instagram Therapy – “therapy” or not?


Illustration by Yuchen (Lauren) Zhang


Hao Zheng

Editor


Whenever the words “Instagram” and “mental health” are seen together, a negative correlation is usually assumed. Most social media, including Instagram, have been proven to be “excellent” platforms for mental health problems to arise.

According to a report in 2017 by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in the U.K., Instagram alone caused problems like anxiety, depression, loneliness, and issues with sleep, body image, and bullying.


A recent trend, however, “Instagram therapy” has changed this stereotype – online support groups are formed between individuals suffering from mental health problems, where they share their experiences in group chats, post inspiring quotes, and spread educational information related to self-love. These interactions between peers can be extremely helpful for the healing process of individuals.


“We support each other through comments and sometimes via [direct message],” stated Caroline, a 50-year-old victim of an abusive relationship that lasted 27 years. She further explained that posting daily and seeing posts from others has created a warm, comfortable, and healthy online environment for her.


But is it actually equal to real therapy?


“Therapy doesn’t happen over social media, and it shouldn’t,” said Miriam Kirmayer, a Montreal based therapist. Kirmayer thinks it is necessary to draw a distinct line between the online therapy and the actual therapy. “Therapy is much more than meaningful quotes…We work together to figure out what [a patient’s] individual or unique experience has been as opposed to this kind of collective struggle we’re talking about online.”


For example, many young people entering the workforce face many challenges such as coping with the working lifestyle, paying bills, meeting family expectations, and handling relationships. All of these struggles, as well as the level of anxiety and depression caused by them, are very different in nature.


Furthermore, according to Shana MacDonald, social media expert and assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, this type of “therapy” also lacks authenticity of what would actually happen in real life. Due to the nature of this platform, and of any social media, people can’t be completely “real” online. This means that many would set up their expectations too high based on their experiences with the online groups and start assuming everyone is as nice as they seem online. This will make them unprepared and become even more vulnerable when they receive negative reactions from others in real life.


Another harmful effect of Instagram therapy is that it can spread untrue or misleading information regarding certain serious mental health disorders. Kirmayer reveals how terms like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, and depression are used in casual ways to mean something that is much lighter than what they actually mean.

Therapists like Kirmayer are establishing online profiles to educate people on the importance of understanding the real meanings of the terms.


Joshua Peters, a registered psychotherapist, is concerned that the users of the social media are unable to differentiate between licensed mental healthcare professionals and individuals who are just posting their stories online.


By following the psycho-educational and non-therapeutic tips provided online, users might think that they are getting professional treatment, while actually they are not. These tips could result in a minimized feeling of loneliness in users, but it is only temporary, and therefore ineffective and meaningless.


Moreover, the term “Instagram therapy” itself is controversial and ironic, as most teens’ mental health issues are rooted in Instagram itself. It makes people question the feasibility and effectiveness of this type of therapy, which seems to be contradictory with the commonly accepted understanding of Instagram, and social media as a whole.


With that being said, “Instagram therapy” can provide an alternative for people who have difficult access to face-to-face mental health services. According to Kirmayer, although it’s not the same as the real therapy, “hearing [that] other people are going through a similar struggle can be very validating, normalizing and reduce feelings of shame,” and therefore, can be beneficial to the healing journey of patients with mental health issues.


“It is not uncommon for someone, or even a youth, who wants to get help, and told that they [have] to wait 12 to 18 months,” says Louise Bradley, the President and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “that simply isn’t acceptable, and it leads us to have our mental health system very, very fragmented.” In this case, Instagram therapy could come into place and help mitigate the feelings of loneliness and helplessness that many people, especially teenagers, have to face.


But again, can Instagram therapy be proven to remain reliable and effective in the long run, despite its accessibility and convenience? Are therapists feeling pressured to enter the online space to gain wider exposure to its potential clients so they could get more profits? These are some of the questions yet to be answered.