Social Media, Mental Health, and Suicide; A Silent Pandemic
Trigger Warning: This blog talks about suicide.
What We know.
Between 2020 and 2022 there was a significant increase in suicide amongst youths and ethnic groups. Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the state of Illinois, and the second leading cause of death for people aged 24-30 in Illinois. (See Illinois statistics here)
In 2019, 45,511 people died by suicide in America, with 1.38 million attempts. Let’s repeat that, 1.38 million attempts, people who didn’t succeed and may still be suffering from suicidal thoughts. This is 2019 statistic, and the pandemic has increased this number significantly.
Suicide is a pandemic, so let’s treat it like one.
COVID-19 has taught us that we can change. In 2020 the entire world accommodated the risk factors of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the US changed their jobs policies, schools provided new services, governments put new safety measures in place, and media outlets brought awareness to the causes and prevention. The wide-spread scientific community was galvanized and outfitted to quickly find a vaccine, which was then made available free of charge. So, why isn’t the CDC making extreme recommendations to increase mental health measures, updating risk factors to identify new populations that may be at risk, and mandate actions behind this?
Mental health benefits from the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 Pandemic significantly increased the ability to seek help by normalizing telehealth options for mental healthcare. Accessibility was a huge problem, especially for lower income and uninsured families. This has helped; however, we have not updated the risk factors associated with the suicide in the last two years.
The risk factors for suicide have expanded.
What do you think of when you learn of someone’s suicide? Me? I think “They may have abused substances” “Maybe they were bullied”, “Perhaps they suffered some trauma that they could not get past”. But what about that person that presents with none of those things? The person that has it all together, the one that appears perfect? I think it’s time to start talking about risk factors other than severe mental health, drug abuse, and trauma…the silent ones.
Let’s look at Miss USA, Cheslie Kryst. On January 30th, 2022, she committed suicide. This shocked several people in the community because… Risk factors, right? She didn’t present with any of them. In fact, she was the opposite of a risk factor. She had wealth, she had beauty, she had the empowerment factor, she was an attorney as well as an advocate, and according to her social media she was very well loved. As I scrolled through her social media account, I looked for any of the “typical signs” of risk. I read the comments looking for harassment and bullying. I looked for interpersonal relationships that may have been dysfunctional, substance abuse issues, or even some indication of mental suffering. I looked for any sign that she may be struggling in her seemingly perfect world. While there are many things about her private life we can’t know from Instagram, there was nothing that stood out on social media. I even saw that she had a therapist, she clearly valued her mental health and her physical health. So how would we know that silent pain she carried?
(Social) Media’s impact on suicide.
While I am not her therapist and don’t know all the details of her experience, I do know that the last two years have ripped the rug from under us and our ability to find connection. Cheslie Kryst’s career thrived on connecting, being available to so many, maintaining an impossible standard of looks and talent. So many of these standards set by the expectations of social media. Here are a few “risk factors” that I saw on her page that were not black and white and should be that start of new risk factors in mental health issues.
In a 10-year challenge photo she mentions that she was 20lbs heavier in her 2012 photo, pre-beauty pageants. In another post she posts a “throwback photo” when her body was “swimsuit ready”. In an article about her death, one journalist states that when she was an attorney, she was asked to wear a skirt in court instead of pants because “the judge liked skirts”. In March 2021 she did an article in Allure Magazine and shared that she has a “relentless pressure to achieve” and shared her perspective on the “often damaging link between youth and accomplishment”. She shared her struggles with internet trolls and faced cyber bullying. Her entire career thrived on what was put on social media and news outlets. This was her job, and she did it well.
Shouldn’t these all be risk factors?
Should someone’s “social status” on social media be a risk factor for suicide? With the increased use of social media as a form of mainstream communication it allows people to hide behind a computer for bullying and helps people create the illusion of a perfect world to cover up mental health issues. The higher the status, the increase of pressure and bullying. But to the person behind the screen, it becomes the norm. It’s normal for them to wake up every morning and be harassed, shamed, put down, and attacked. Just the same as the kid who gets abused every day by their mentally ill parent. It’s their normal, but does it make it okay? Does it not weigh on the individual and eventually break them just like anything else? We are silently suffering, and silently killing the generations below us. It is high jacking young brains more than drugs and alcohol, disabling us from being able to form identities of our own without immense pressure from strangers. We are being crippled by standards that are created by the illusion others create online.
What can mental health professionals do?
Bottom line, you cannot take away a symptom without addressing the root of the problem. Perhaps with more regulations on social media including what is allowed, consequences for harassment, and boundaries on using this to gain social status. Would this decrease mental health in both teens and influencers? As mental health professionals we may not be in a position to change regulations and expectations, but we should heavily consider social media and expectations as a risk factor for anxiety, depression, and suicide risk. This problem will only get worse, and it is time to update our techniques in addressing these issues.
If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, substance abuse, or suicidal ideations in the Chicago area, Perspectives Counseling and Psychotherapy Centers has trained professionals with immediate availability for in-person and telehealth.