Instagram as a pathway to mental healthcare

Radhika S Bapat suggests affordable and accessible self-help options for the 'therapy generation’

Mental health, Instagram, Radhika S Bapat, COVID-19 lockdown, Therapy generation, Instagram therapy, Psychotherapy

Being old school, I never took the social media site Instagram very seriously. From an outsider perspective, it seemed like a vehicle for self-indulgence. Still, I decided to join, making my therapist self more accessible to those people who could not afford professional services and called my Instagram handle @psychotherapybar.

Imagine how surprised I was, then, that in a short span of 50 days my followers grew to 15K and counting. Moreover, I began receiving scores of direct messages per day asking for help with understanding what psychotherapy means, and personal recommendations for hospitals, psychiatrists and psychologists.  When I joined I had not considered how the COVID-19 lockdown would affect demand for this free online resource. It quickly became clear to me, however, that platforms like Instagram in a digitally mediated age like ours, represented a largely untapped pathway for mental healthcare information delivery, at low costs, to reach those who needed it most.

A popular New York Times article published last year addressed how “Instagram therapists are the new Instagram poets” and put the spotlight on mental health influencers who are able to connect with and give voice to Gen-Z, the new “therapy generation.” The article had mixed reviews with some forceful detractors warning of how this encourages potential “addictive” and “insubstantial” therapy and risks “misguiding” seekers. On the other hand, it had ardent advocates applauding its use as an “amuse-bouche” or hors d'œuvre that kindles the appetite for more, by abating the fear and stigma surrounding mental health.

A world mental health survey reported that 99% of Indians with serious mental disorders did not perceive a need to seek help.

What caught my attention was the observation that all said and done, it had put the spotlight on a necessary dialogue surrounding community mental health delivery models. Instagram was launched in 2010 and bought by Facebook in 2012. It now boasts of a monthly engagement of over 300 million users. In fact, figures from Nielson, a well-known global marketing research firm, indicate that Instagram is the fastest growing application software or app, outperforming Pinterest, Twitter, and Linked-In. Combine this with the fact that Indian smartphone users across entry-level, middle and premium segments spend half their time—between 45 and 65 minutes per day—on networking apps and Instagram it seemed the most logical pathway to explore.

Psychology in India has struggled with much more than just affordability. Stigma and accessibility also drive people away. A world mental health survey, for instance, reported that 99% of Indians with serious mental disorders did not perceive a need to seek help. Furthermore, charlatan Godmen who lays claim to magical cures make it harder to access timely treatment. Perhaps this is not surprising given the fact that there is only 1 psychiatrist available per 3.3 lakh Indian people and even fewer formally trained psychologists.

I thought it a pity to not be able to harness the power of interconnected networks in this age of connected commerce.  American and European peer-reviewed articles have already highlighted how scholars and practitioners have begun to take Instagram seriously and use it as a major communication tool. Why should Indian scholars fall behind? Equipped with this information, and a genuine desire to be able to share whatever information I had for free, I decided to use the “image first, text second” rule to break language barriers and target audiences seeking legitimate mental health information on Instagram.
My strategy was simple. I would break down complex information into attainable goals via visually compact grids. I would study annual reviews and meta-analysis from high impact factor journals and filter them into a visual language with 3-4 simple “to-dos” and I would refrain from giving any advice that I wouldn’t myself take. This would also serve the purpose of keeping me on my toes vis-à-vis details on “what’s the latest” in mental healthcare.

Former projects with Professor Uday Athavankar from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, and Professor Adele Diamond, one of the world’s most influential developmental neuroscientists, had upgraded my design skills. I was trained in using low-cost and readily-available indigenous material for neurorehabilitation and psychotherapy. I had also worked heavily on imbuing culture in design. My love for English, Marathi and Urdu poetry and prose as well as love for reading books, served me well because I am often asked “What self-help book do you personally recommend?”

I landed up collaborating with the famous visual artist Vimal Chandran, commissioned illustrator for JW Marriott, Uber and Vodafone to name a few, on posts that address mental health needs and stigma. We did this non-commercially and saw our combined work as original, minimalistic, earthy and above all mutually enriching. This was corroborated by the response we got to the posts and our engagement with audiences. We had managed to touch hearts and affect lives through our digital works of art. And as Keats would say; 
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Radhika Bapat is a clinical psychotherapist.