Reading time: 6min.

by Claire Munday

Depression in the digital age

We may live in the 21st Century, but unfortunately there is still a stigma attached to depression. It’s an illness that can completely envelope someone’s life, yet is rarely talked about and often misunderstood. It’s worrying that a condition the Royal College of Psychiatrists claims to affect 1 in 5 people is swept under the carpet. [1]

In an age where we share everything about our lives on social media, it’s hard to fathom how we don’t know when our friends and family are suffering. Truth be told, we’re not sharing everything; we pick and choose what others see, thus not painting a true representation of life. Could this behaviour be contributing towards the rise in depression in millennials and is it exacerbating symptoms for those already suffering?

I spoke to a few people who shared their experiences of living with depression and their thoughts on the impact of social media differ. One simply said there is no link between her symptoms and anything she reads online, but another shared that; “it’s all too easy to go on social media seeing your friends having a nice time and feel that your life is inadequate.” Another added that “for younger people there is a lot of pressure online to be ‘instafamous’ or to look a certain way.” I think it’s safe to say that social media isn’t a standalone cause of depression, but when you add trolling and cyberbullying, it is clearly another area of concern with regards to mental wellbeing. In 2013/14 there was an 87% increase in calls to ChildLine reporting online abuse. [2]

So what are the causes that trigger depression? Well the answer to this varies. Firstly, anyone can be affected, no matter age, race or gender. Statistics show women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health problem, yet 78% of suicides in 2013 were men, reflecting they may be less likely to admit they need help. [3] Those I spoke to believe their depression is hereditary but what triggered the illness was personal to their own circumstance. Many have said taking the contraceptive pill brought on symptoms; one describing it as the start of “a three year struggle with clinical depression and a now a further five year struggle with antidepressant medication and chronic depression.” Other attributable causes include struggles in personal and/or work life, bereavement, hormone changes, baby blues and vitamin deficiency. Sometimes combinations of these causes make the illness thrive.

Experiencing any of the above does not automatically mean you have depression or live with it for an extended period of time, so it’s important to know what the signs are. Worryingly, nowadays we can go online and self-diagnose or rather misdiagnose; convincing ourselves we’re fine, as we’re only showing a few signs. For example, the NHS website lists 22 possible symptoms for clinical depression, split into three categories – Psychological, Physical and Social. [4] Misconceptions are further fuelled by our ability to research almost any topic online and assume we are now an expert.

Our data-driven society may do more harm than good in some areas, but to completely condemn it would be foolish. Most people with depression often find it hard to engage with others, especially strangers. With apps, e-mail, live web chats and forums at our fingertips, communication without face to face contact has never been so accessible. Most of ChildLine’s counselling is conducted online [2] and many health websites employ doctors to give personal advice. Despite obvious symptoms being present, many will suffer in silence, pushing those closest to them away; having the tools to speak anonymously online may lead to someone getting help.

Whatever your thoughts on how the internet era can affect mental health, unless you’ve experienced it or witnessed someone in the deepest throes of depression, it will always be hard to understand. The majority of those I spoke to confided with me that they’ve either considered or attempted taking their life and sadly all have had bad experiences upon sharing their difficulties with employers, colleagues and even family and friends. Hopefully their words can inspire a change in attitude:

“I thought depression was for people with real problems and didn’t see myself as one of them. When I was upset I’d go to sleep and then wake up okay, because it seemed so easily solved I thought I was okay.

My husband is very supportive but he has had to cope with a lot of my behaviours and anger- coaxing me to wash my hair and doing all the housework himself, even when I’m shouting at him because it’s not the way I’d do it. I sought help after I worried about my anger towards him.”

“I kept it a secret from all my work placements – I didn’t want it to define me. However, I had to tell them how much I was suffering.

Depression is a very consuming illness; all you care about in those moments is how ill you feel. If someone around you is withdrawn, sensitive or over emotional, watch out for something more serious. If they express feelings of hopelessness and don’t enjoy normal activities that they usually would, that could definitely be a sign too.

 Relationships are hugely affected and you can’t trust yourself when you’re depressed. Don’t make any decisions when you’re thinking like that and always have someone you trust to reason with you. Someone who knows you really well and if you’re alone reach out and find someone who’s been through it. This is SO IMPORTANT!”