Global Mental Health in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Social Media and Technology Usage

Written By: Sarah Edmonds MA MFA, Elena Schatell PA-C MPH MMS, and Dr. Heather F. McClintock PhD MSPH MSW

Blog II

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all of our lives in one way or another. All around the world people transitioned to working from home, lost employment, quarantined, bereaved the loss of loved ones and worried about becoming infected with the virus. The pandemic’s impact on the wellbeing and mental health of people around the globe has been substantial. It is multifaceted and will surely have implications for years to come. The global prevalence of depression and anxiety has increased by 25%. In the United States, we have seen substantial increases in teen suicidality and a four-fold increase in reported symptoms of a depressive or anxiety disorder among U.S. adults. 

During a time when the demand for mental health services has drastically increased, we saw an increased disruption to mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide. The pandemic impeded access to mental health services with reduced outpatient visits, disrupted mental health emergency interventions, and suspended in-person group therapy sessions. What the COVID-19 pandemic has done is “spark a push for global mental health transformation.” It has illuminated the importance of mental health and the need for innovative global interventions targeting mental health promotion, prevention and treatment. 

Consequently, people across the globe have been using social media and other technological applications at increasing rates to enhance their mental health such as online psychological care and counseling or social media user groups for peer support. In addition, persons in isolation or quarantine show increased rates of general social media usage and they seek to cope with loneliness and separation. However, existing studies show conflicting results in the study of how social media usage—all forms, including active usage (like posting and commenting on forums), passive usage (like scrolling through social networking sites), and more direct computer mediated communications such as chatrooms, email, and any sort of interactive communication online—impacts the overall mental wellness of the users. 

Some studies from the Germany, Norway, and Northern Ireland report a correlation between active and passive social media use and increased rates of depression, anxiety, and poor self-image among adolescents, also noting that active social media use can result in cycles of emotions ranging from highly positive to highly negative with little time to process in between. Notably, recent studies from the United States, United Kingdom, and Pakistan have found an explicit connection between consuming media about COVID-19 and negative mental health that suggests—though social media may initially be a form of escapism—that the overabundance of pandemic news, misinformation, and commentary available on social media platforms is significantly detrimental to users’ overall and long-term mental wellness.

In contrast, some studies in Italy and the United States have reported that social media use—specifically active usage within friend groups—resulted in an improved sense of community and empathy and a greater feeling of purpose in life. Professionally developed technological mental health awareness initiatives and campaigns have shown some success in improving mental health outcomes. By using social media and other online platforms to spread awareness of mental health conditions, it can help destigmatize mental health conditions in populations that otherwise may not have access to educational resources. For example, in one study conducted across sub-Saharan Africa, online resources and mental health education campaigns proved successful at improving overall awareness and connecting patients to needed specialized care more easily than traditional pathways. Targeted messaging and the use of telemedicine for mental health has been shown to be a beneficial resource, specifically, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic when many individuals rely on social media for news both from governments and their local communities. The use of telemedicine for mental health care, specifically for younger populations who frequently rely on computer mediated communication methods, has been a useful tool to engage persons and improve well-being according to researchers in Italy.

Multiple literature reviews (Tsao et al. 2021, Meier and Reinecke 2021, Gianfredi et al. 2021, Jones et al. 2021, and Marciano et al. 2022) have suggested that the contradictory results of many studies may be related to variation in how social media usage impacts individuals. Mechanisms that may influence this relationship include a variety of individual demographic factors and mental health history. Future innovative approaches that utilize social media and technology and take into account individual variation are critical to create infrastructure and support to improve mental health and well-being of persons globally. Many of these approaches are already being developed, tested, and implemented and will be central in bringing about sustained improvements in mental health globally. 

Sarah Edmonds MA MFA

Sarah Edmonds is an Adjunct Professor with Arcadia University’s Department of English. She is a former Communications and Social Media Co-chair of the American Public Health Association’s International Health Section and has worked closely with Dr. Heather F. McClintock on research into intimate partner violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. She also works as a technical writer for Goldblum, Pollins, & Dennis Immigration Law advocating for the immigration status of top international researchers. She is Editor-in-Chief of For Page & Screen literary magazine and her fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetic works have been published extensively.

Elena Schatell PA-C MPH MMS

Elena Schatell is a recent graduate of Arcadia University’s Dual Master of Public Health/Master of Medical Science in Physician Assistant Program. She aims to promote public health in underserved communities as a family medicine physician assistant. Her public health interests include access to mental health services, stigma surrounding mental illness, and the relationship between faith and mental health. She has interned at the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) national office in Arlington, Virginia, working closely with the Advocacy and Public Policy team on conducting research on service barriers and state mental health policy. During her time at NAMI, she also authored articles for the Advocate magazine and blog.

Dr. Heather F. McClintock PhD MSPH MSW

Dr. McClintock is an IH Section Member and Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health, College of Health Sciences at Arcadia University. She earned her Master of Science in Public Health from the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. McClintock received her PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on health behavior and promotion. Her research broadly focuses on the prevention, treatment, and management of chronic disease and disability globally. Recent research aims to understand and reduce the burden of intimate partner violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to completing her doctorate she served as a Program Officer at the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and a Senior Project Manager in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania. At the University of Pennsylvania she led several research initiatives that involved improving patient compliance and access to quality healthcare services including the Spectrum of Depression in Later Life Study and Integrating Management for Depression and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus Study.

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