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Mental health awareness on social media prompts local action

Meadville Tribune - 5/27/2024

May 27—As social media has skyrocketed over the past two decades, questions have arisen about the negative impact social media has on mental health.

But how is social media used to positively affect mental health?

In Crawford County, officials remain optimistic, saying that mental health awareness posts on social media decrease stigma, disseminate information and foster community.

Mental health in Crawford County

According to Meadville Medical Center's (MMC) monthly data on mental health visits to the emergency room, young women seek out a large amount of assistance.

This data aligns with Pew Research Center's recent study, which concludes that more women use social media than men and social media use is most prevalent in the 18-29 age bracket.

Ron Arnold, a Children and Youth Services program specialist and chairman of the Crawford County Suicide Task Force, said the emergency room also sees an influx of younger men, typically 20 to 40 years old, seeking mental health intervention. He noted that he sees the younger population as less affected by the stigma that older generations have long been entrenched in.

"The idea that mental health issues are something to keep quiet about doesn't resonate with them (younger men) so much, and they will seek out help," Arnold said.

John Debevec, the county's Children and Adolescent Social Service Program coordinator, does not use social media but does have limited information based on his interactions with youth populations. He said that he has seen youth benefit from the opportunities and resources that social media creates.

"An online approach to anything is interesting because you can access information and offer input without necessarily identifying yourself, so it allows people to engage, listen and ask questions when they may not be ready to directly reach out to professionals or adults for help," Debevec said.

For men in the county especially, Arnold said stigma can prohibit older populations from seeking help. According to reports from the Crawford County Coroner's Office, older white men have made up for a significant portion of deaths by suicide in the past six years.

"The people we see dying by suicide in Crawford County tend to be older men," Arnold said. "I can't speak to every one of their circumstances, but that kind of lines up with the stigma of, 'I'm just going to solve the problem myself.'"

From March 2023 to May 2024, major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder were the most common mental health disorders reported in the county. Those numbers represent patients receiving treatment through Medicaid, but Arnold said the data mirrors what he would expect if those in treatment through private insurance and those who have a disorder but don't receive treatment were included.

Not just those with diagnosed mental disorders can benefit from mental health awareness, though.

How is social media helping?

Shannon Deets has built her counseling career and business in Crawford County. She has been a licensed psychologist for 10 years and a licensed counselor for about 15, and she is an associate professor in the psychology department at Thiel College in Greenville. Deets uses social media personally and in a limited capacity professionally for her business.

A majority of her clients use social media, and Deets noted that her experience has been very telling. Members of certain groups, like the LGBTQ+ community, have begun to seek her help, and she believes that social media may have a hand in that.

"It does reduce some of the stigma of getting help," Deets said. "It doesn't have to be that you have to have a severe mental illness to seek help. Sometimes, what we see is people who are struggling with problems of living, problems of fitting in, problems of being discriminated against in society or bias or things like that, so therapy can be very helpful for that."

Arnold noted that suppliers of mental health support are not always able to meet the demand for services — especially children — and social media can create a supportive community and circulate helpful information.

His daughter was able to successfully intervene in a potential suicide when an acquaintance from another part of the country confessed to her online an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and the possession of a means of lethality.

"She came to me and asked what she could do," Arnold recalled. "We found out where the individual lived, called the crisis services in that county, and they were able to do a welfare check on the person who later came back to thank her for stepping up and to intervene in the way she did."

Deets explained that many disorders can isolate someone or require immediate support, and social media can play an advantageous role by cultivating community.

"For individuals to be able to find a community of people that are caring and help them to feel like they belong and maybe even provide some tips on how to manage some of the symptoms they might be experiencing — I think that's a very positive aspect of social media," she said.

For example, people with bipolar disorder find social media helpful as those individuals can find support immediately to work on regulating their emotions, Deets said.

But just as easily as social media can bring someone helpful information, it can spread misinformation.

How is social media harmful?

"This is kind of a double-edged sword," Deets said of social media's representation of mental health. "Where I see this being problematic is where you get some of the more sensationalized aspects like violence in our community. Then, immediately it goes to this idea of mental illness, so I'm a little concerned that mental illness is being viewed as more dangerous than it is."

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a department within the Department of Health and Human Services, only 3 percent to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. On the contrary, SAMHSA reports that people with severe mental illness are 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators.

Arnold has been working in the mental health field for 39 years, so when he scrolls through his social media feed, he often sees content about men's mental health awareness. The algorithm that programs relevant posts to populate his feed is largely driven by engagement, though.

"The algorithms on social media are driven to gain views and keep people on social media, so the more sensational postings tend to get a lot more views and tend to be pushed up in the feed, and it can feed people a lot of misinformation," he said.

Deets said that after major events or tragedies, users head to social media for information.

"When something terrible happens, we want to have a quick solution so that we can say, 'OK, we got it figured out, we can stop this now.' But the reality is it's hardly ever a quick solution or a quick explanation," she said. "Most problems have many factors that are contributing to them. ... Does this (post) seem like an oversimplification of a problem? Does this seem like a knee-jerk reaction versus well-thought-out solutions based on evidence?"

Deets and Arnold say looking at the source where content originates is crucial to ensuring content is accurate.

Crawford County takes initiative

Crawford County's mental health services remain in limbo as they await further funding from various levels of government to provide adequate support needed in the community. Fortunately, social media is a free resource.

This summer, the Crawford County Suicide Task Force is partnering with Allegheny College to enhance its social media presence. The push will be on multiple platforms to increase engagement, heighten awareness of resources, lessen the stigma surrounding mental health and increase the number of calls to the hotlines for help.

The task force currently has Facebook, Threads and Instagram accounts and is looking to branch out into TikTok and X, formerly known as Twitter. The information is beneficial for all members of the community, not just those who struggle with mental health.

For example, there are informational posts about support groups for those who lost a loved one to suicide.

"That grief hits a little bit different, and talking about it is a little bit different," Arnold said. "That's part of the stigma we want to combat. If you say, 'I've had a family member die of cancer,' somebody is going to talk to you. If you say, 'I have a family member die by suicide,' that tends to make the conversation different, and sometimes it's uncomfortable for people to talk about it. Maybe not you, as the person who lost someone, but some people don't know how to talk to you."

Arnold is hopeful that the information shared throughout the summer by one of the college's students will get the county some more exposure and send positive messages out.

"We want to be able to push out more information to de-stigmatize mental health and normalize asking for help and reaching out, especially when you're feeling down," Arnold said.

The county's crisis hotline is (814) 724-2732, and someone is available 24/7.

Chloe Forbes can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at


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