Even though social media can be overwhelming, it can still be a great tool for staying connected to people. After all, anything that helps you keep up with your best friend from college and the latest Kardashian news can't be all bad.
Plus, social media gives people opportunities to talk about things they might not usually share in person — including their mental health issues or other personal problems. But because these issues are so personal, it's hard to tell exactly what you should do if someone you know opens up on social media about something they're going through, whether it's a general rough patch or a serious health issue. Should you send a comment? A direct message? Or wait until you see them in person?
If someone is saying that they want to harm themselves or others, you should consider reporting it to law enforcement. But if your friend makes a generally harmless post that still concerns you (for example, they discuss going through anxiety or grieving a death in the family), there are multiple ways that you can help.
Marni Amsellem, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Smart Health Psychology, says that it might be helpful to first try to discern the person's reasons for making the post.
"Some people who are experiencing [mental health problems] might use that as an opportunity to both get support from their followers and their friends or to educate them [about the issue]," she says.
If you want to acknowledge someone who is posting to educate their followers, you can post a comment and say something like, "It was really brave of you to share that," or "Thank you for posting that, it was really inspiring."
On the other hand, Dr. Amsellem says that if it seems like someone is actually looking for support, you can lend a hand by offering to be there for them, and by listening to anything they might need to talk about. Posting a comment or sending them a private message is great, but it's even better to call, text, or ask to see them in person.
Time may be of the essence when someone posts something that impels you to reach out.
However, remember that time may be of the essence when someone posts something that impels you to reach out. Dr. Amsellem says that if you wait too long, the issue might have already passed, or they might feel uncomfortable that you're bringing it up again.
"When you wait to run into someone, it’s a little bit more passive," she says. "You can instead send them a message right away and say, 'I saw your post and I’m thinking of you,' or 'I’m sorry that this has been rough for you.'"
If you're offering to help, however, Dr. Amsellem says to make sure that you're promising something you can deliver.
"So if you say 'I'm here whenever you need, you can call me anytime' — if you don’t really mean that, then word it differently," she says.
When someone on social media posts something concerning, it's tempting to suggest resources, but if you want to encourage them to talk to a mental health professional, there are ways to do so with care.
"If it's just a casual acquaintance that you haven’t had contact with in a long time, it might not be appropriate [to recommend therapy] and wouldn’t help the situation," Dr. Amsellem says.
If it's a close friend you feel comfortable broaching the subject with, however, offer up your own experiences with therapy or other support groups if you have any while being careful to not sound like you're telling the person what to do.
"It’s important that people don’t hear what you think they should do as a directive," Dr. Amsellem says.
Still, the old adage "better safe than sorry" works well here. It's always better to try to reach out than to ignore a post if it gives you pause or causes you to have concern for someone.
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.