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Social Media Has Become A Place To Talk About Mental Illness. But Is That Helpful?


Young people share a lot on social media - what they ate for breakfast, who they date, how they spend their money. And there is a typically taboo subject that's becoming commonly public - mental illness. YR Media's Jen Tribbet brings us the story.

JEN TRIBBET, BYLINE: I'm about to tell an incredibly personal story to millions of people. It started last year when I was walking home from the supermarket in the pouring rain. Have you ever been listening to a song and thought, wow, this singer really speaks to me? Well, I thought a singer was literally speaking to me. Here's the song - Kelela's "Turn To Dust."


KELELA: (Singing) And everything is problematic. I'm trying my best.

TRIBBET: At first, it was comforting. But many hours with no sleep later, I found myself stranded in Berkeley, mind racing and convinced that my simulation was glitching. I texted my brother, and he took me to the hospital. My friend Ra Imhotep (ph) came to visit.

RA IMHOTEP: I see you kind of laying in the bed in your hospital gown. Like, you were talking slow, but the thoughts were moving fast, if that makes sense.

TRIBBET: A doctor called it a manic episode and said I'd be OK. So naturally, I went onto Instagram and posted about my situation. I've never had a filter, and I didn't see this as a reason to get one. I'm 25, and my millennial and Gen Z friends share our mental health struggles all the time to get support and affirmation from one another.

Do you know anyone else who has come out to talk about their mental health on Instagram or social media or just more publicly?

IMHOTEP: Like, you want names and profiles, or just in general? Do I know anybody? (Laughter). Yeah. I feel like - honestly, like, so many.

TRIBBET: All over social media, you'll see the memes and tags - #talkingaboutit, #youoksis, #mentalhealthwarrior - which can be a good thing if you ask 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania student Juliette Palermo, except...

JULIETTE PALERMO: The issue with sharing too many memes about mental illness is that you're kind of making fun of an issue without talking about, like, the serious aspects of the issue, too.

TRIBBET: Juliette says she's dealt with depression and anxiety since she was a teenager. She might not be posting memes about her mental health, but she is sharing her experience very publicly on a website she created with a friend called The tagline is, we are very anxious. She and her friend meet up at a cafe to brainstorm story ideas.

PALERMO: And it stresses me out because, like, I'm finishing therapy with John.

BRIDGET: Maybe that's something we could write about. We could...


BRIDGET: ...Totally write about saying goodbye to your therapist...


BRIDGET: ...Because I've done that twice now.

PALERMO: Oh, that's a great idea. Yeah.

TRIBBET: Juliette says sharing her story helps her to see her own experience more objectively and inspires others to open up. Juliette was lucky. She got an off-campus therapist after her school counseling center told her they only do short-term therapy.

One in three college freshmen report symptoms consistent with mental illness. Over at UCLA, wait times for students at the counseling center have grown, says Assistant Director Saeromi Kim.

SAEROMI KIM: You know, it's like the 405 in Los Angeles where it doesn't matter how many lanes you put in. It keeps filling up, and it feels hopeless. And it feels like we don't know what else to do in order to meet the need.

TRIBBET: Kim says students can wait up to three weeks or even a month between sessions. While they can find support online, Kim has found when students keep posting about mental health struggles but can't access actual treatment, their peers can burn out and become less responsive. And even with more students sharing their mental health stories, Kim still hears from young people who worry about what disclosing their diagnoses could mean for their relationships and future opportunities. Remember Juliette, co-founder of umyikesquestionmark? She's in the process of applying to grad schools.

PALERMO: And then there's the issue of, does a competitive grad school want to deal with me, you know? Like, what kind of liability do I pose to them if I am, you know, openly expressing that I'm mentally ill? And that's, like, a huge thing.

TRIBBET: UCLA's Saeromi Kim says it's against the Americans with Disabilities Act to discriminate based on mental illness. But you can't control how people judge what you share. And yet here I am, speaking my truth. Kim wanted to make sure I thought it through.

KIM: Can I ask you, like, why do you want to share this story, do you think?

TRIBBET: I don't - you know, this is my actual life. I've been through some things. I'm over some things, and I'm still working through some things. And at this point, you know, I live with it.

KIM: Absolutely. And I hope that goes into the story, by the way.

TRIBBET: I made sure it did.

For NPR News, I'm Jen Tribbet.

CORNISH: And that story was produced by Youth Radio's new network, now called YR Media. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jen Tribbet

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