Could Social Media be a Game-Changer for People with Serious Mental Illness?
Q&A with Dartmouth Institute PhD Candidate John Naslund
An estimated one in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. The challenges of living with a serious mental illness have also been linked to chronic medical conditions including obesity and cardiovascular disease. As part of his dissertation research, Dartmouth Institute PhD candidate John Naslund is exploring how social media and other ‘non-traditional’ formats can help people with serious mental illness find support and improve their well being. Below he discusses his recent work and shares some of his thoughts on social media use and mental illness:
Q: What areas within mental health are you working on as part of your dissertation research?
A: I am looking at how we can use mobile health technologies and social media to help people with serious mental illness improve their lifestyle behaviors, such as losing weight or quitting smoking. Right now, I am collaborating on a project led by Kelly Aschbrenner that looks at how a group-based health promotion program - supported with wearable activity tracking devices, smartphone applications, and Facebook - can help people with serious mental illness make healthier lifestyle changes.
Q: Can you describe what you’re learning about social media and how it can be used as a support system for those with serious mental illness?
A: My colleagues and I have observed that individuals with serious mental illness are increasingly turning to social media to share their experiences or seek advice from others with similar health conditions. As part of our ongoing research, we are finding that despite significant social stigma associated with mental illness, they seem to be more likely to build friendships on social media, share their views via blogging, and use the Internet for accessing health information than do people without mental illness. We recently published a paper in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences outlining many of the opportunities to support and empower people with serious mental illness through online peer networks.
Q: In a recent interview with NPR, you talk about a possible change (for the better) in the way society views mental illness. What do you think is driving that change? Is it social media? Generational? The combination?
A: It is really difficult to assess whether there have been positive changes in the way society views mental illness. I think it is important to acknowledge that people with mental illness continue to experience significant stigma in their daily lives, and not to underestimate the impact that this stigma can have on their health and well-being. Having said that, social media has clearly transformed the way we communicate as a society, and we are seeing that people with highly stigmatized mental disorders are now able to connect with each other online and offer each other support and advice, and inspire one another.
Q: Part of your work also involves studying the results of intervention programs to help improve lifestyle behaviors. What were some your takeaways?
I have had the opportunity to contribute to the work of Stephen Bartels and his research team including Sarah Pratt and Kelly Aschbrenner on promoting the mental and physical well-being of people with serious mental illness. As part of this work, I recently helped our team to evaluate the impact of the In SHAPE lifestyle intervention among a very high-risk group of people with serious mental illness and severe obesity (body mass index of 40 or greater). To our knowledge, no prior studies have looked at lifestyle interventions for people with serious mental illness and severe obesity. Our findings, which were recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, showed that people with serious mental illness and severe obesity were able to successfully lose weight. It really highlighted the need to make health promotion services that target weight loss and fitness more available in community mental health centers.