Allow me to set the scene. It’s the first night of my orientation at the University of Pennsylvania. I have just been uprooted from my 18 years of comfortable living in an affluent neighborhood of Los Angeles and thrown headfirst into a 6-block radius of 10,000 college-aged individuals about whom I know nothing. I latch onto the first group of individuals with whom I am able to sustain at least a 2-minute conversation, and the question on everyone’s mind is the same: “What do we do with ourselves”?
As a group of socially aware college students with our coveted iPhones in hand, we immediately take to the social media stratosphere in search of any sources of information and insight. The barrage of Facebook events, Snapchat stories, and Instagram videos and photos are astounding. Everyone seems to be having the night of their lives: posts roll in every minute, with people dancing on tabletops, pouring out vodka shots, and embracing 15 “best friends”. Before I can blink, I am whisked away by my eager comrades and plopped into the middle of a crowded, sweaty fraternity party.
No meaningful conversations, no true connection, just a sea of intoxicated young adults conducting their own photo shoots.
My ability to detect this transparency does not mean that I do not participate - I am now the artistic director of my own photo shoot, staging the perfect shots that feature all my new best friends, with drinks in hand and uncontainable smiles on our faces. Then comes the barrage of another hundred Instagram posts, each person glued to their phone to see the number of likes that stream in minute after minute. It felt good to be a part of the crowd. We left, said goodnight, and returned to our respective rooms.
And then I started to sob. Uncontrollably.
I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression about a month into my freshman year of college. I woke up each morning with the weight of the world on my shoulders. Getting out of bed and going to take a shower felt like I was being tasked with completing an Ironman. Responding to text messages or phone calls was completely out of the question. Tears and breakdowns and overwhelming sadness became the norm. My eyes saw as if through a permanent veil. I had suicidal thoughts. I started medication and intensive therapy, which helped a bit, but it really felt as if nothing in the world would alleviate my undying pain.
I struggled to be open about what I was going through. It wasn’t that I didn’t have people to confide in or turn to for support, but I didn’t even really know how to articulate it myself. How was I supposed to tell my a cappella group that I couldn’t come to rehearsal because I was at a therapy appointment? How could I email my professor and ask for an excused absence because I couldn’t get out of bed? Although physical and mental health had always been advertised to me as fitting under the umbrella of “wellness”, it was so much easier to use the excuse that I had a cold or a stomach flu rather than elaborate about my extensive mental journey.
What made it the hardest, though, was Instagram.
I opened my Instagram every single hour, just to see what I had missed and to check in on my likes. I searched for external validation, believing that if my photo were to hit a certain threshold of likes or comments, it would mean that I had worth in this world. I attached so much weight to it, it became almost like a faith or a religion. Pictures of me being “happy” led to likes, which led to validation, which led to a fleeting sense of worthiness and a feigned sense of comfort. Looking back now, it seems like a hilarious joke that I would think it to be so important, but I guess I was not the person back then that I am now.
Instagram is a breeding ground for 'fakeness' and inauthenticity.
Who wants to stare at a post that explores the depths of someone’s psyche when they can stare at edited bodies, beautiful smiles, overly-defined cheekbones, stunning backdrops, and “positivity”? The world of Instagram couldn’t be further from the real world. It’s distorted reality. It’s a popularity contest. It’s a source of validation that for 99% of people invalidates their experiences. If you have fewer followers and fewer likes, it must follow that you are simply less popular or less liked than your “influencer” counterparts.
As part of my personal therapy, I made it a point to conduct individual conversations with other students, so as to make deeper interpersonal connections and get a sense of what people were experiencing. Suffice it to say, 100% of individuals with whom I spoke were struggling with a certain aspect of their newly redefined lives. Whether it was social anxiety, depression, Bipolar Disorder, mania, relationship issues, academic stress, or even just lack of sleep, people were going through it. I would never have been able to guess it from surfing through their respective Instagram feeds.
We are human beings. Each of us. And if there is one thing we all have in common, it is that each of us are going to experience some adversity in our lives. We’re all deep, we all feel emotions, and we all have the ability to empathize and the ability to open our hearts. We’re unique, we are special, and we are able to connect.
And yet, at the same time, we are all liars. We are extreme liars. We cover the truth. We wear masks of happiness to hide our humanity. We try to program ourselves as robots, unfeeling and insusceptible. We only show to others what is deemed “likeable”. On Instagram, that means feigned happiness and forced smiles. That means skinny stomachs and muscled arms. That means masses of extremely close friends. That means lies.
Removing likes from Instagram is definitely a good thing.
To not worry about how your post is being received will definitely eliminate some stress and anxiety, and will hopefully encourage people to post more truthful self-depictions. Yet, it is one step in what needs to be a marathonic journey to end the stigma around mental illness and improve the mental wellness of individuals.
I envy the experience of my parents, who were able to grow up without the confines of the social media world. They didn’t have to worry about what everyone else was doing at all times. They could focus on their own experiences, be present in their conversations, establish stronger connections, and, most importantly, speak openly.
And yet, here we are in 2019. A world dominated by technology and the world of social media. Suicide is an epidemic. Mental health affects every individual. Why is it that every college student strives to work on their physical health by going to the gym or to the doctor, but very few strive to work on their mental health by seeking therapy, improving sleep habits, or even having a one meaningful conversation a week? This needs to be talked about. This is pressing. It is urgent and requires participation from everyone on all fronts. This is going to take a monumental effort.
So, let’s start with removing likes from Instagram. If even one person feels less anxiety, it will have been successful. I’m all for it.
But this ultimately falls on all of us. Let’s take this into our own hands. If you are still reading this, thank you. You’re already taking the first step in your own marathonic journey towards mental wellness, and I am proud of you. Let it carry you to take even more steps. Start running even! Keep running this race until everyone finishes.
As someone once told me, “If you aren’t yourself, you are robbing the world of something it desperately needs”.
So it is time, my friends.
Start the conversations.
Check in with yourself.
Check in with those around you.
That’s how we run the marathon of life.