Turning to Facebook for help is probably the wrong move for depressed college students, new research shows.
In a small study of 33 students who posted on Facebook about feelings of depression, not one was advised to reach out to a mental health professional for help.
Rather, friends sent supportive and encouraging messages.
“It makes me concerned that none of the Facebook friends of students in this study were proactive in helping their friend get help,” said lead author Scottye Cash, an associate professor of social work at Ohio State University, in Columbus. “We need to figure out why.”
Study participants reported the posts they made and how their friends reacted. They also completed a questionnaire on depression.
Nearly half had symptoms of moderate or severe depression and 33% said they had had recent suicidal thoughts.
“There’s no doubt that many of the students in our study needed mental health help,” Cash said.
Student posts included feelings of loneliness or having a bad day or feeling things couldn’t get worse. Only one student asked for help and only three mentioned “depression” or related words, Cash said.
Most indicated their depression through song lyrics, emoji or quotes that expressed sadness.
“They didn’t use words like ‘depressed’ in their Facebook posts,” Cash said. “It may be because of the stigma around mental illness. Or maybe they didn’t know that their symptoms indicated that they were depressed.”
Typical responses to the posts included asking what’s wrong and suggesting that things will get better. “It is hard to tell who cares or who’s (just) curious this way, though,” one student wrote.
Other common responses including liking the post or contacting the friend privately.
“For the friends reading these posts, they often have to read between the lines since few people came right out and said they were depressed,” Cash said.
The findings highlight the need for more mental health literacy among college students, Cash said.
“Both Facebook and colleges and universities could do more to give these students information about resources, mental health support and how to recognize the signs of depression and anxiety,” she said.
The report was recently published online in the journal JMIR Research Protocols.
For more on college students and depression, head to the Child Mind Institute.
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