I started an Instagram account recently at the The Extra Ounce. I realised there was a lot more I wanted to say about mental health and advocacy but I don’t currently have the time to write blogs as much as I would like. So I created the Instagram account so I can post something short and sweet everyday. It’s been a really fun experience and I’m enjoying it. But I’ve noticed some strange things as I’ve started to immerse myself deeper in online mental health communities. Some of these things I have found quite troubling.
Firstly, it’s curious the names people choose to give themselves. I specifically chose the Extra Ounce as my online persona because it has a cool story behind it, which you can find here but also because it doesn’t put me in a box. The Extra Ounce allows me to talk about mental health, my specific diagnoses but also anything I find interesting, like the post you’re reading. To my mind, some people are so hell bent on creating a brand that they pigeon hole themselves. I’ve noticed a trend on Instagram of people naming their accounts after their diagnoses. So they might be ‘bipolarbabe’ or ‘edwarrior’ (I’ve made these up. Any similarity to real accounts is purely coincidental). And I just find this bizarre.
I guess it makes sense from a branding point of view; people see your handle and they know exactly what you’re about. But I wonder how it must feel to reduce yourself to your diagnosis for the sake of more likes and followers. I personally would never want to label myself as ‘Bipolar’ ‘Anorexic’ or ‘PTSD’. In fact, you’ll notice in the ‘about the author’ section of the Extra Ounce that my diagnoses are the last thing mentioned about myself. Because I think there are so many more important ways to define myself other than my diagnoses. I want freedom from the box of diagnosis. So even though people might get confused when they see my handle, and they might not follow me because of it, I stand by my choice to honour who I am first, and my mental illnesses second.
Something else I have found troubling about Instagram is the lack of safe speech and trigger warnings. You may be remember that I have mixed feelings about trigger warnings. I often feel they are overused and we are wrapped in cotton wool. But the things people will post on Instagram without warning or forethought startles me. I remember once a girl I followed posted a simple selfie of herself. Seemed innocent enough. The caption then detailed her recent suicide attempt in graphic detail. I stopped reading almost immediately and un-followed her. I was in a state of shock. I hate the phrase, but I was genuinely triggered. It doesn’t take much to set me off when it comes to suicide. I honestly couldn’t believe that she would post that, where anyone could see it, and have a clear conscience.
I don’t think the people who are posting these intense/graphic posts are bad people. In fact I think they probably have really important stories to tell. The issue is that they have the tools but haven’t been taught how to use them. I speak from experience on this front. Through my work with SANE Australia and batyr I have had a considerable amount of training in advocacy and how to talk about mental illness in a safe way. In the past, I too would make mistakes such as quoting my low weight when talking about my eating disorder or talking about my specific plans for suicide. Through training I have learned how to talk about these same issues in a way that is both safe for me and my audience. I’m very grateful for that. And it strikes me as unfortunate, but also dangerous, that so many people have access to the platform to share their voice without the same access to guidance about how to do it safely.
My final reflection is concerned with how I personally feel about social media. When I first started the Instagram account. I was obsessed with the numbers. How many likes did I get? Was the account growing fast enough? How many followers did I get today? I realised that it was similar to my eating disorder days, I was obsessed with the numbers and checking my ‘progress’ constantly. It wasn’t healthy. So I set up push notifications so I would get told anytime something happened and that made me a lot less obsessed and made me enjoy the whole process some more.
As much as I find elements of the Instagram mental health community troubling I have found the process of being able to express myself through photos and words a lot of fun. It’s helping me to feel a bit more creative in my daily life. Plus I have already made new connections and friends that I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to meet. So I think I’ll learn to deal with Instagram’s short comings so that I can continue to benefit from the rewards of expressing myself and hopefully helping others in the process.