The internet has become an almost inseparable part of social life and communication for most of us. Social media has evolved from simple personal profiles and instant messaging to a source of news, education and entertainment. It connects us to people we know and to total strangers in exciting new ways. It empowers interactions that would never occur otherwise. People in recovery often find it a valuable tool for building virtual fellowship and community. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic made this virtualized community-building aspect more important than ever.
But when using the internet as a resource, we must be aware of its limitations. There are inherent risks that come along with seeking information about mental health in social media. When you’re interacting with screens instead of face-to-face, you may lose sight of the fact our communications have real effects on real people. Remember that complex ideas lose context and meaning when you boil them down to memes and sound bites. On the positive side, little tidbits of information can be easier to browse and digest. But, that snack-sized bit of knowledge can never equal the four-course meal it takes to truly understand something as complex as trauma.
The Risks of Learning About Mental Health in Social Media
Part of the risk of learning and forming opinions based upon tweets and 30-second video clips or memes is that someone has already done the processing for us. It’s hard to form a nuanced, objective opinion in those extremely limited formats. It’s also easy to misunderstand, be influenced by someone else biases or unintentionally harm someone else when you share something on a subject you don’t fully grasp. The ease of use of this kind of communication also makes it easy to spread misunderstanding.
This isn’t to say that social media nuggets aren’t a fun and useful way to share. Clearly, they are, and social media is here to stay. But if we want to know how to understand trauma, we’ve got to put sources in their proper context. Memes can provide welcome comic relief. But with the wide-reaching impact on a person’s life, something like trauma has, we must take great care.
Imagine you’re a woman looking for ways to deal with trauma after discovering that certain experiences were the underlying cause of your symptoms. You do your initial research on how to understand trauma online. You’re beginning to have some insight into your situation and slowly becoming comfortable with processing your trauma and seeking help. Then a friend shares a meme about trauma that seems to trivialize your experience. How might you feel? It could seem as if someone you care about is ignorant about your experience and the impact it’s had in your life.
Your friend never intended to be insensitive, but suddenly it feels silly to talk about your trauma in a serious and thoughtful way. From your perspective, this silly meme has sucked all the oxygen out of the room. It could even undo weeks or months of progress.
What’s Good About Social Media and Memes
One of the most beautiful things about social media is the way it facilitates communication and understanding. Sites like Facebook and Instagram help us maintain connections to the people we love across vast distances. They also help us find like-minded communities online.
The effect on mental health in social media is often portrayed as negative, but the internet isn’t inherently good nor bad. It’s simply a tool. The influence it has on our mental health isn’t outside our control. We have the choice to be either a passive consumer of content or an active participant who is selective. Cultivate awareness of trauma, of the media you consume and its potential effects on your self-esteem and well-being. The better we understand both the pros and cons social media has on our mental health, the more we can use it as a force for good in the world.
Benefits to Mental Health in Social Media:
- People and their stories become available instantly to an audience of billions via social media. It raises the voices of the previously unheard.
- Social media is a powerful tool to broadly raise awareness more rapidly than any method accessible to everyone in the past.
- People’s inhibitions tend to be lower online compared to in-person; this can make it easier for people to open up and share.
- Experts on mental health in social media circles are willing to network and share insights. Social media makes them more visible.
- You can directly access authors and specialists in specific areas via social media to ask questions and broaden your understanding.
- On social media, we can consume content together as an audience and share our interpretations and insights with each other.
What’s Not So Good About Social Media and Memes
The great irony of social media is that for all the connection and sense of belonging we may get from it, it can also make us feel more alone. Social media allows people to communicate differently than they would in person. That’s a positive when people can share feelings, strength and hope without the obstacle of inhibition. But inhibitions and social cues are also what prevent people from sharing potentially hurtful humor or saying inappropriate things.
For example, when we aren’t face-to-face, we cannot respond to microexpressions the way we would in person. Microexpressions are just one type of nonverbal communication humans use. Most are so subtle we aren’t even consciously aware of using or responding to them. They can be as discrete as the height your eyebrows rise or a flickering glance. When we interact in person, these nonverbal cues add important context to communication.
Instant Gratification and Abridging Important Ideas
The internet is largely built to reward us with instant gratification, which can lead to entertainment value often taking precedence over accuracy. Most of us have become so used to assimilating information in bite-sized nuggets that it’s easy to think we have more of a grasp on something than we really do. When the topic is something superficial that doesn’t impact the well-being of others, this tendency to summarize and paraphrase is mostly harmless. But when we’re looking at something as consequential as how to understand trauma, it can do real damage.
This does not mean we need to abandon the idea of discussing serious subjects like trauma and mental health in social media. It just means we must be responsible and cognizant of how we do it. Try not to forget there is always more to know and remember the built-in limitations of social media. Here are some of the risks to consider.
Risks to Mental Health in Social Media:
- Complex ideas lose meaning and depth in summary for a sound bite or meme.
- Information relevant to mental health in social media is incomplete. Often, it’s found in the form of short quotes or even shorter memes.
- If you want to know how to understand trauma thoroughly, it requires more substantive content than you are likely to find on social media platforms.
- One of the best ways to deal with trauma is by sharing and listening to personal stories. These can be difficult to convey fully when online, especially via social media.
- There is a real risk of becoming overly dependent on the internet for socialization and interaction at the expense of real-world encounters.
How to Understand Trauma
The sources of trauma are often complex and have many layers. Even when we can point to a single incident in our history as the primary source of trauma, the effects reverberate like the ripples in a pond after a stone drops in. As the waves of traumatic impact radiate outwards, they influence almost everything in their path. The effects of trauma can sometimes be difficult to trace back to the source. Even at the moment when trauma occurs, the reactions of the person experience it can be quite complex. The ways in which different people cope with trauma are almost as varied as our personalities.
In learning how to understand trauma, one of the first things to consider is that not everyone experiences it the same way, and not everyone will respond the same way to similar trauma. This does not mean we cannot learn from other experiences. It just means part of the duty of trauma-informed care is not to use a one-size-fits-all approach. We must never lose sight of the individual when trying to understand their experience. When two people have similar trauma and even a similar diagnosis, their responses to both the trauma and the methods of treating it can vary.
If You Would Like to Learn More
If you would like to learn more about how to understand trauma and raise the level of discourse about it and mental health in social media, there are a number of ways to do that. The National Education Association (NEA) participates in research to develop trauma-informed education standards. The current thinking is that outcomes can be improved by early intervention. By addressing the effects of childhood trauma when it occurs, or soon after, in early childhood or adolescence, we can help trauma survivors become healthy, well-adjusted adults. This can help avoid or minimize some pitfalls that can arise because of untreated trauma. They include substance use disorders, promiscuity and risk-taking behaviors. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is also an excellent resource for learning how to understand trauma and its effects. Their page on coping with traumatic events can be especially useful in the short term.
It’s up to us to be responsible for learning about and speaking about issues as serious as trauma, especially in the online space where our words have such expansive reach. Luckily there is a wealth of information out there. Just remember to stick to academic and government or expert sources wherever you can and try to resist the urge to stay on the surface. Dive in and really learn, then share what you find. Together we can raise the level of discourse about trauma, mental health and recovery online.
Getting Help Sadly, untreated or undertreated trauma sometimes comes with an increased likelihood of self-harm or even suicidality. If you or someone you know may be at immediate risk, please connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you would like to know more about how to understand trauma and trauma-informed care, please contact Promises Brazos Valley at 800-393-0391. We can help you understand the effects of trauma, especially as they relate to substance use disorders. We also offer gender-specific trauma-informed care for adults 18 years or older.