The Social Media Survival Guide

As I’ve progressed in my studies in Social Media at Birmingham City University, I’ve come to increasingly focus on a neglected area that’s little understood – the link between social media, psychological well-being and social skills – and have set up a page on Facebook, the Social Media Survival Guide (Now called ‘Nagwan’), for people interested in this area.

It makes sense that, if we’re increasingly using the web as part of how we socialise, we can get better at using it if we improve our approach to ourselves and other people and yet, although you can find articles on the subject, they’re usually not very reliable, so are often unhelpful to people trying to make the most of social media sites.

The page is also somewhere to discuss the issues raised by such articles to get a more balanced insight into much of the reporting that’s out there at the moment, insights we can act upon more realistically than we can with the current state of knowledge. The Facebook page brings together people who may need to improve their personal skills, like some service users, for example, with social media professionals and their counterparts in health and well-being so that we can discuss the options available to all of us when we use the social web, but instead of the emphasis being on tools and services we’re aiming to improve how we think, communicate and socialise when we use those services, with potential knock-on effects for our whole lives and the groups we’re part of.

As a mental health service user, where at one stage I was on the verge of becoming a ‘revolving door’ patient, I’ve learned that an effective approach to psychological and social skills is crucial. But doesn’t the same apply online, now that social media has become such an intrinsic part of how we interact with other people?

So, whether, say, you’re experiencing Facebook angst or you’re worried about your private information leaking out, if you want to improve how you take part in online social activities or come to terms with a bad experience on a site, come and visit the page and help us to help you start making improvements in how you use social media. Nagwan! See also: The Nagwan Social Media Documentation Project

Empowering a Silent Community: Social Media & Mental Health

This presentation arose from observations and personal experience of the negative ways people with mental health issues are often treated in society and from research into how this comes about in part via the mainstream media.

The intention is to inform people of the context of their health, their diagnosis and the media so that they are equipped to challenge prejudice effectively and introduce other people to the concepts covered. You may edit and comment on this presentation and I hope you do.

It’s the first draft of what – ideally – will be developed into a better resource for people to tackle the issues we face as a society in the widespread prejudice against people with mental health diagnoses.

When Social Media isn’t Enough

There’s a lot on the Internet about how to use social media for commercial gain. There’s also scare stories on the dangers it represents to our health.  However, there’s relatively little on how to use social media to make the most of our psychological health or even how to design services and tools that can help bring this about.

The idea of people having, not only access to pre-existing communities, but also the ability to tap into accessible and inexpensive ways of building new ones is exciting, but how are we supposed to benefit fully from a widespread approach to social media that could, yet rarely does, adequately address the personal, interpersonal and social failings we may bring to communities, failings that mean such communities do not even nearly reach their full potential and can even cause more problems than they solve?  Sure, there are sites that cover psychological health and well-being, but this is rarely, if ever, competently linked with social media, when it could quite easily be.

I don’t believe that most online communities are equipped to deal with the psycho-social issues they may face and instead fall back on easy, traditional methods that sound good in the short-term (mainly because we’re familiar with them), but which may be damaging to groups and individuals looking further ahead. With this, I’m not saying that we should banish to an online oblivion people who don’t match up to a set of arbitrary standards.  What I am saying is that what we see so often online – people introduced to the Internet and taught about social media tools – is not enough: members of communities may fall short in terms of their own psychological well-being and the ‘tools’ to improve that.  Consequently, their behaviour towards others could be problematic, hindering communities in a cycle where people lack insight into where their problems came from, how they affect their own lives, along with the lives of others, and how to address this constructively.  Likewise, many communities may never challenge how they do things because they fail to appreciate the potential psycho-social benefits of social media.

This is a pity, since social media can bring us into contact with people who can, ideally, expose us to alternative ways of thinking, being and relating to others that could be beneficial to us and the communities we are part of.  Take the formation of groups. I recently discussed creating an online service with a potential client, who emphasised that the group would need to be moderated partly to safeguard the organisation’s image.  I asked ‘why?’ but knew what the answer would be, an answer that fitted in with traditional ideas, but not social media ones.  The answer, of course, is to facilitate, not moderate – to empower members of sites, not dictate terms to them. Maybe there’s not a lot to do in such situations but shrug your shoulders and resign yourself to the fact that many, if not most, organisations currently don’t appreciate that power and its distribution works – or should do – differently in social media, which calls for a more horizontal, rather than vertical structure.

Compounding this problem, it seems to me that too many people working in social media still think like mainstream media people (top-down, ‘sit down and listen’, etc.), so maybe it’s time to really think about what social media advocates ought to focus on so that this media can live up to the principles behind it in design and in communities in ways that improve our psychological as well as our social lives. If people are ever going to benefit from what social media can offer us in terms of challenging and improving on the ways things are done, perhaps we need to realise that life doesn’t have to be about the things the traditional mainstream media wanted us to think it’s about.

In fact, if we want to make the most of social media we need to recognise that many of those principles are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world that’s changing at a rapid pace. My guess is that we’ll eventually adapt and make the most of social media for our psychological as well as our social well-being and that people of a mainstream media disposition who are so vocal on the net today won’t be so prominent tomorrow.

Psychiatry in Denial

The popular conception of biology obscures the origins of poor mental health.  We’re blinded by notions of genetics and brain chemistry to the reality that our reactions are decontextualised and the blame for ill-health is placed on those, some of whom have already been blamed from birth, by a science that has simply got it wrong.

People with mental health conditions, treated by psychiatry, are subjected to a biological idea that hasn’t got that much to back it up: even research into twins which seemingly supports clinical psychiatry’s theories has been called into question. Real world causality is taken out of the equation as people with mental health diagnoses are placed in a social void where behaviour is judged without adequate consideration being paid to environmental factors.

One of the main talking therapies, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), makes a similar mistake, asking people to change their thinking to change their approach to their environment and in so doing change the environment itself, without highlighting how unhealthy that environment can be to people with a diagnosis.

I believe that mental ill-health is socially influenced and its etiology is intergenerational.  Poor thinking, communication and interpersonal skills can be passed on from generation to generation, which leaves many unfortunate enough to come under a triggering set of events unable to cope, leading to a diagnosis of mental ill-health.  Research into the effect of our environment on our brain chemistry shows how important context can be.  Compound the issue across generations and the rest can pretty much write itself. Families fuck you up, goes the saying, but telling people this is a minefield. It’s difficult to imagine psychiatrists having the courage and the tact to be able to address the problem head-on.

But this isn’t a blame game.  When a baby’s born, the parents are not given much in the way of support and guidance.  You’re pretty much left to your own devices and the support of family and friends, support which can be misguided and problematic.  Again, this isn’t a blame game, more a wish that parents get more support and better guidance to stop the rot, especially in families that function poorly.  Wider afield, inequality is known to have a detrimental effect on people.  This also needs to change, so that we not only need to tackle the problem at an individual level, but at a societal one, also. To be on the receiving end of the social implications of a psychiatric diagnosis can be a nightmare for people, with many saying that these implications are more damaging than their symptoms.

Not only is our culture ignorant of the issues, it’s also historically prejudiced.  This can lead to the scenario that service users not only face prejudice from the wider society, but also from themselves, often putting people off seeking support and, if they do get it, impeding their recovery. Social media gives people a chance to address all this by diminishing the role of the mainstream mass media, challenging the dominant view of mental health and enabling people to build relationships with others in a way that lets them get a more realistic and positive message across.  The hope has to be that greater inclusion – meaningful inclusion – is possible with the right approach.

However, I think that just using social media is not enough.  We need to improve our own thinking along with our communication and interpersonal skills.  We need to know the context of our diagnoses and the treatment we currently receive.  We need to not only be well-versed about our own lives, but about the world around us in order to make a convincing case whenever the opportunity arises. Social media will almost certainly influence how medicine is done, with a less top-down approach from psychiatry.  Unfortunately, Britain’s main healthcare provider – the NHS – is slow at changing and I expect many in the psychiatric profession to resist the kind of changes being mooted by advocates of social media.  In other words, don’t expect a revolution to happen tomorrow.

Saying all that, it looks like change is coming in the years ahead, in no small part thanks to the existence of social media.  It needs to, but it also needs people to abandon their fears about revealing their diagnosis – to come out and advocate for improvements in the lives of the diagnosed so that when the next generation of mental health service users enter that first meeting with a psychiatrist, they don’t face the same pain many people in contemporary society face.