Severe mental illness and social media


At present, I am conducting a qualitative study on young people’s opinions of the consequences of their social media experiences. Without going into detail, participants were asked to think deeply about the implications of social media use and suggest arguments for and against the proposition that “Use of the internet and social media has psychological benefits”. Participants have made propositions and I am currently categorising these into positive and negative “Societal”, “Social &Interpersonal” and “Cognitive” arguments. There are literally thousands of arguments and, while there is some repetition, young people’s thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of social media use are interesting and imaginative.

I have been particularly intrigued by the suggestion by some participants that social media provides a positive social and interpersonal advantage to those with severe mental illness. If I am honest, this was not an area I had given much thought to and, certainly, when one looks to the research or opinion in this area, there is very little written.

Research which examines the use of the internet and social media by those with severe mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar, depression etc) begins with findings that those with mental illness use computers and that they have similar attitudes to technology as others (Salzar & Burks, 2003). As expected, reasons for internet use among those with mental illnesses vary from shopping, telecommunication, information seeking and news (Cook et al, 2005). Further, it has been shown that, along with taking online courses and seeking information on medication, some participate in online skills, therapy or support interventions aimed at their community (Kaplan et al, 2014). Some with severe mental illness have taken to blogging their experiences (, Fiona Kennedy’s fantastic and an excellent essay on sharing one’s severe mental illness online here). Moreover, it has been shown that those with severe mental illness also use various social media. While 74% of U.S. adults may have at least one social media account, there is evidence which shows that those living with severe mental illness use the internet and social media at significantly lower rates than the general population (Miller et al, 2015).



In studies, social media use relates to negative outcomes for some users; impaired subjective wellbeing (Kross et al, 2013), loneliness and depression (O’Keefe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011) and social anxiety (Caplan, 2007). However, there are also numerous studies which show relationships between social media and positive consequences. Social media users enjoy the experience and find it useful (Lin & Lu , 2011), it helps them maintain relationships (Ellison et al, 2007) and it has been associated with lower levels of loneliness (Ryan & Xenos, 2011), enhanced self-esteem (Barker, 2009) and participation in community (Hampton et al, 2009). Similarly, for those with severe mental illness, social media use has been shown to have positive health-related outcomes. Miller et al (2015) found, in a study of 80 participants with schizophrenia, that 47% reported having a social media account, with 27% reporting daily social media use. Social media users said that platforms helped them with interacting and socializing with friends and family. Additionally, Gowen et al (2011) reported, in a study of 140 young adults with severe mental illness, that 93% used social media, 94% believed that social media use helped them feel less isolated (communicating with othes, making new friends, etc.). Although some social media users with severe mental illness have reported that social media activity correlated with increased psychiatric symptoms (Mittal et al, 2015) or that reading about their illness increased symptoms, there is evidence  to show greater socialisation and connectedness (Alvarez-Jiminez et al, 2015) and community integration (Snethen & Zook, 2016).

Despite the fact that there is little research in this area, it is clear that those living with severe mental illness use social media and that the motivation to do so is no different from anyone else. Social media not only provides information and a connection to professionals, but importantly, it provides a connection to peers. The communication environment is asynchronous, it does not require one to respond verbally and there can be a degree on anonymity or at least, some control in how one presents one’s self. Time and again, in discussions around severe mental illness, the issue of stigma is raised. Could social media be a boon for those living with mental illness? Perhaps, because the stigma associated with mental illness might be less pronounced online than in face-to-face communication, those with severe mental illness can interact more freely with individuals from other social groups.



Alvarez-Jimenez, M., Alcazar-Corcoles, M., Gonzalez-Blanch, C., Bendall, S., McGorry, P., & Gleeson, J. (2014). Online, social media and mobile technologies for psychosis treatment: A systematic review on novel user-led interventions. Schizophrenia Research, 156, 96–106.

Barker, V. (2009). Older adolescents’ motivations for social network site use: The influence of gender, group identity, and collective self-esteem. Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 12, 209–213.

Caplan, S. (2007). Relations Among Loneliness, Social Anxiety, and Problematic Internet Use. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(2), 234-242.

Cook, J., Fitzgibbon, G., Batteiger, D., Grey, D., Caras, S., Dansky, H. (2005). Information technology attitudes and behaviors among individuals with psychiatric disabilities who use the internet: Results of a web-based survey. Disability Studies Quarterly, 25 (2).

Gowen, K., Deschaine, M., Gruttadara, D., & Markey, D. (2012). Young adults with mental health conditions and social networking websites: Seeking tools to build community. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 35 (3), 245–250.

Hampton, K., Sessions, L., Her, E. (2009). Social isolation and new technology

Kaplan, K., Solomon, P., Brusilovskiy, E., Cousonis, P., Salzer, M. (2011). Internet peer support for individuals with psychiatric disabilities: A randomized controlled trial. Social Science and Medicine, 72 (1), 54–62.

Lin, K., & Lu, H. Why people use social networking sites: An empirical study integrating network externalities and motivation theory. Computers in Human Behavior, 27 (3), 1152–1161.

Miller, B., Stewart, A., Schrimsher, J., Peeples, D., Buckley, P. (2015). How connected are people with schizophrenia? Cell phone, computer, email, and social media use. Psychiatry Research, 225 (3), 458–463.

Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Ryan, T., & Xenos, S. (2011). Who uses Facebook? An investigation into the relationship between the Big Five, shyness, narcissism, loneliness, and Facebook usage. Computers in Human Behavior, 27 (5), 1658–1664.

Salzer, M. & Burks, V. (203). A mediational study of computer attitudes, experience, and training interests among people with severe mental illnesses. Computers in Human Behavior, 19 (5), 511–521.

Snethen, G., & Zook, P. (2016). Utilizing social media to support community integration. American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 19(22).


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