How Pinterest Might Actually Be Saving the Lives of People With Depression
A popular Pinterest post features a cartoon girl, slumped down, brow furrowed. A cat looks up at her, a concerned expression on its face. "Sometimes you just need someone to tell you you're not as terrible as you think you are," is written overhead.
The simple cartoon has been repinned nearly 2,000 times. "That is actually one of my most active pins at the moment," a user by the name of Robin Headington, who pinned the image, told Mic via the site's messaging service. "I have got much better over the years, but still suffer from depression from time to time."
Robin said she has depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She's been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and borderline personality disorder and is currently on disability for agoraphobia. She prides herself on working actively on her mental health, and she told Mic that she's earned 90 credits toward a bachelor's degree in psychology. Yet she often looks to Pinterest for tips on how to cope or ways to better understand what she's going through.
"When all my emotions get where I feel overwhelmed, I can get on Pinterest and look up pins related to how I'm feeling, and it helps me work through my emotions," she said. "Sometimes it's my way of figuring out exactly how I'm feeling by finding the pins that say what I can't seem to put into words myself sometimes."
Robin is not alone.
The pins range in tone from frank to poetic. Sometimes there are artsy-looking dead trees. "She's lost her sense of light. She might not make it home tonight," reads the caption of an illustration of a girl poised to jump off a bridge, under the search for "suicide." "I don't want to die and I'm not suicidal, I just want to not exist," says the word art imposed over a leafless oak in another.
Considering that nearly 14.8 million American adults, or more than 6% of the adult population, have had a form of major depressive disorder at one point, it's not exactly surprising that users on an image-based service like Pinterest would use it as a form of emotional catharsis. What's unclear is whether or not the website is actually a helpful resource for people like Robyn, who have mental illness.
A recent study from the University of Georgia and Virginia Commonwealth University found that a significant percentage of Pinterest's more than 100 million users engage with depression related content. In analyzing 800 such posts, researchers noted that "more than half of the pins referred to the seriousness and severity of depression," while 10% of all pins focused on suicide.
The authors of the study found that there was "a lack of specific coping strategies to balance out pins that suggest depressing thoughts," adding that few mental health professionals and therapists are equipped with the tools to address depression-related posts on Pinterest. (When reached for comment, a Pinterest spokesperson told Mic that no one at the company was available to answer questions about this subject.)
"You could say it's a type of therapy for me."
What the study doesn't quite touch on, however, is the sense of "comfort" that users like Robyn derive from knowing they're not alone. It's difficult to scientifically quantify the the effect the mental health community of Pinterest has on its users, but testimonials show it to be quite profound.
"It's been one source of coping by letting me get out everything I feel," Pinterest user Rebekah Tomlinson told Mic. "It makes me feel like I'm not the only one who feels like I do."
User Kristi Batman expressed a similar sentiment. "Pinterest has allowed me to find beautiful ways to describe what I'm going through," she told Mic. "I find common ground knowing that the people who made these works feel/felt the same way I do, and thus I feel less alone."
The pins also help users precisely identify what they are going through, rather than simply reassuring them that others are experiencing the same thing.
"I've been fighting severe depression since I was 12 years old, and at times I find it very difficult to verbally express how I feel," user Hilary Twerkchamp told Mic. "Surprisingly, Pinterest [is] a great way to express my emotions when life situations get too difficult at times. You could say it's a type of therapy for me."
Of course, the fact that so many users rely on Pinterest as a mental health resource begs the question: Is it a good practice for their mental health?
In a way, having a space like Pinterest mirrors the therapeutic process, in that it brings up difficult feelings and helps to untangle them.
"It really helps people to verbalize what's in their head," Kenneth Anderson, who runs an online support group for those with alcoholism, told Mic. "If you just think these thoughts and don't verbalize them, that can get to be a problem. If you can verbalize what you're thinking in terms of the positive and negative, they become concrete and are less likely to spiral out of control."
Some of the users Mic spoke with said they also had experience with traditional therapy and looked to continue through Pinterest the coping methods they learned in treatment. User Tira S., for instance, said that she turned to Pinterest after five weeks of an aggressive outpatient therapy program, which she attended for three hours each day.
For users who are simultaneously seeking conventional forms of therapy, it can be difficult to navigate the line between using Pinterest as a way to commiserate with others experiencing the same feelings, and using it as a "dysfunctional coping" method to reinforce their feelings of low self-worth or even encourage them to self-harm, per the University of Georgia study.
It's notoriously difficult for social media platforms to regulate troubling content. (See: Instagram's attempt to eliminate triggering thinspiration content, or images that promote unhealthy body image, which only succeeded in spawning a host of alternate tags.) Users who look to these sites have to be aware of the impact it may have on their mental state.
"I will be honest and say that I'm not always wise ... I can be in a state [where] looking at these things will trigger me more," Tomlinson told Mic. "But I can't help but look at them regardless."
Those dealing with self-harm, for instance, might be encouraged to do so further after looking at content from others struggling with the same issue.
"Any kind of post that makes us think/or long to self-harm, binge, etc., is a triggering post, and those can vary depending on what a person deals with," Tomlinson said. "The reason they are hard to not look up is because self-harm and such is a strong addiction and regardless of knowing it is wrong it's our coping method and our safety net."
Nonetheless, most Pinterest users said that having a community engage with your content and provide emotional support was incredibly valuable. That community can provide a safety net, they said, even when pins are the source of upsetting emotions.
As a mental health resource, Pinterest fosters a mix of public performance and private interpersonal discussion that allows each user to choose the version of the site they are most comfortable with. What emerges is a place where, with the optional veil of anonymity, you can fit the community to your needs. It's the kind of choose-your-own support group that could only ever exist on the Internet.
Some users message each other privately in order to provide more in-depth support. "Just being able to talk to others that understand me makes me not feel crazy," Tomlinson told Mic. "[We] talk about when we're not okay. We talk about whatever will help that person in that moment. We talk about what's wrong [and] vent. Venting helps a lot because you're talking to someone else that not only is listening but completely understands."
Others engage with each other in the comment section of pins. Kristi began interacting with the community after she posted an explicit poem about suicide. The exchange that followed revealed the way these posts can be simultaneously upsetting and consoling.
Across the different iterations of community interaction on Pinterest, there's a clear mix of not just receiving help, but also being there to give it. There's a certain altruism in the simple offer of being present when your support is needed.
"Sometimes you don't need to talk or hug or anything, you just need someone to 'be there,'" Tira said. "Whether that's physically or virtually, it's still a type of support and sometimes that's all you need."
Editor's note: For information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Both provide free, anonymous support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.