Mental Health

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Survey finds those with a mental illness are more socially isolated and increasingly using social media

Mental Health AssociationAs part of October’s Mental Health Month NSW, new survey findings have been released to reveal that people with some experience of mental illness are often socially isolated with few close friendships, and are increasingly using social media to meet people.

The survey is part of a research study by the Mental Health Association NSW into friendship, social support, psychological distress and mental well-being patterns and trends in NSW. It showed that more than two-thirds of those surveyed found it difficult to make new friends, with many now turning to social media sites like Facebook to try to meet people.

The study supports the Mental Health Month NSW theme of “Good friends help us bounce back”, which aims to promote the importance of friendships in building people’s resilience to both small and major setbacks in life.

A total of 456 people completed the online survey anonymously via the Mental Health Association NSW website during August and September 2010, answering questions about friendship, social support, use of social media, mental health status, resilience and well-being levels.

The majority of participants were female (84%), and between the ages of 26-45 (45%). Almost half the participants reported a past experience with mental illness (43%), with the most common diagnosis being depression (54%), followed by anxiety (18%), bipolar (16%), other (7%), schizophrenia (3%), and personality disorders (2%). Most participants reported having no dependents (67%), working more than six hours a week (74%), and paying rent (53%).

No best friend
Nataly Bovopoulos, Mental Health Promotion Manager, Mental Health Association NSW, said that the study revealed that there was a concerning link between friendship and mental health. “More than 60 per cent of people surveyed, who have had a diagnosis of a mental illness such as depression or anxiety, say they have no one they can call a best friend. And 40 per cent would have trouble finding someone to drive them to the doctor if they were sick,” she said.

“The study also showed that younger people were twice as likely to have difficulty in talking about their mental illness, with 32 per cent of 18-25 year olds not disclosing it to their friends as opposed to only 17 per cent of people overall. This suggests that younger people could be experiencing more of the stigma attached to mental illness.”

The study also showed the extensive use of social media, indicating that online communication may be replacing face-to-face contact for some people as they are finding it easier to meet like-minded people via Facebook. An overwhelming majority (96%) of 18-25 year olds use social networking sites, as opposed to 72 per cent of respondents overall.

While the advent of social media no doubt provides comfort for many people, Ms Bovopoulos also said that it was important to try to develop and maintain face-to-face friendships.

“We found that people who reported enjoying close, empathic, supportive, and caring friendships, who like and are interested in people, and who enjoy interacting with others for their own sake had higher psychological well-being, greater resilience, and lower psychological distress.

“It is important for us all to reach out to people we suspect may be struggling, and offer them friendship and support, as it can really help them get back on track,” she said.

Key survey findings

  • Friendships and social support have positive relationships on our mental wellbeing and resilience. People who talk to their friends about their problems have better mental health.
  • People currently experiencing symptoms of mental ill-health often deal with problems on their own rather than talk to others.
  • People with a mental illness diagnosis, and currently experiencing symptoms of mental ill-health, have fewer people to depend on and rely on for support
  • Social media can be a useful tool for people to keep in touch with friends, and a much less confronting form of communication for some people, especially to make new friends. However, there is concern for vulnerable groups that social media could replace face-to-face relationships for vulnerable groups.
  • People who are at risk of, or have experienced a mental illness, can benefit from developing skills to enhance their social support and develop new relationships.
  • Experiencing a mental illness can make many people feel isolated from their friends and family. Further efforts to de-stigmatise mental illness will encourage more people to talk to others that they trust about their experiences and seek help when needed.

For further information about Mental Health Month NSW, visit www.mentalhealth.asn.au