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Social Media, Stress, and Substances

By: Sarah Glaswand

A recent article in the New York Times, Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection , discussed the increased suicide rate among teens and young adults. The piece outlined many contributing factors, including pressure and over-involvement from parents, the high demands of course work, and low self-worth. As a social media strategist working at a leading behavioral health and addiction treatment center, one of the things that stood out to me is the correlation between mental health and social media.

The article discusses a theory about social comparison, where individuals base their own value by comparing themselves to their peers. Because we live in the age of technology, these perceptions and comparisons are often faulty. Between Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, people have the ability to craft their own narrative and create a public persona. By strategically posting certain photos, an individual can appear happy and well-liked; having a ‘perfect’ life, regardless of what is truly going on inside. Social media provide a digital mask behind which people can hide.

This digital mask creates many issues. For the individuals creating a public persona, it can be extremely stressful to feel the pressure of maintaining the narrative they’ve invented. They’ve set expectations for themselves that transcend the digital space and become what’s expected in real life as well. For individuals viewing the personas of their peers, it is easy to perceive these masks as reality and fall into depression when their own lives don’t measure up. As the article notes, “anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State .”

Digital masks also contribute to and can often exacerbate the shame an individual already feels. Through the narrative some individuals create, their lives look effortless; they appear accomplished in academics, extracurriculars, and in social circles. Someone who is on the outside, looking in, and who is struggling academically, socially, or both, might feel less than as a result of viewing these digital personas. “According to Dr. Anthony L. Rostain, a pediatric psychiatrist on Penn’s faculty who was co-chairman of the task force on student psychological health and welfare, ‘Shame is the sense one has of being defective or, said another way, not good enough,’” the article shares.

One of the women the article focuses on turns to cutting as a way to deal with her depression and shame. While not discussed in the article, we know that individuals also turn to substances. Alcohol and other drugs are often used to numb oneself – a way to avoid or repress feelings like shame and depression. Unfortunately, due to the cyclical nature of substance abuse and addiction, using drugs or alcohol can result in a dependence on the substances both physically as well as psychological, which further contributes to the shame an individual is feeling. This can create a downward spiral from which the individual doesn’t see a way out.

It’s important to know that treatment centers like Caron exist, which focus on holistically treating individuals and address all their behavioral health issues, including depression, shame, and any other co-occurring issues or disorders. Through comprehensive treatment that addresses the mind, body, and soul, individuals can recover and go on to lead healthy and productive lives. Following 12-step principles such as acceptance, self-awareness, and spirituality, allow individuals to become better versions of themselves and have new outlooks on life.

If you or a loved one may have an issue with substance abuse or addiction, Caron can help. Contact us at 484-345-2859 or www.caron.org.