Connecting to Social Media, Disconnecting from Mental Health?

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Loneliness has been perceived as a problem that mostly affects older populations. However, a new Cigna study found that Americans, as a whole, are feeling lonely, with adolescents and young adults reporting the highest rates of loneliness.

So what’s behind this wave of isolation? While some people blame the younger generations’ fixation on social media, the current evidence is inconclusive, in part because social media has only recently become prominent, making it difficult to study its long-term effects.

What is certain is a lack of face-to-face interactions is connected to people’s feelings of loneliness.

Teens today spend more time with media than anything else in their lives. Even when they are spending time with other people, many are still using their phones. And studies have shown the more time someone spends on social media platforms and the more social sites they visit, the more likely they identify themselves as socially isolated.

Passively spending time on these platforms and not engaging with others online can also result in feelings of isolation.

A’nna Jurich serves as executive director of Gateway Carbondale, which offers a program for self-esteem-related issues among adolescent girls. Jurich runs through some of the online trends associated with loneliness and mental health:

Cyberbullying

The rise of social media has raised with it concerns about online bullying. According to research, cyberbullying is often related to low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, frustration, and other emotional problems. Bullying can be dangerous, especially for adolescents who are undergoing a lot of change, and ongoing.

“There are a couple of issues with the social media trend for adolescents: one is that they do not have the ability to disengage from all of the input from others, be it peers or media,” Jurich elaborates. “For example, if they are being bullied at school, they go home and log in and, often, the torment continues. They don’t have that period of afternoon and overnight to process and disengage from the negative messages.”

The Comparison Trap

Social media is a highlight reel and no one sees the daily behind-the-scenes; however, it can be difficult to keep that in mind while scrolling through endless photographs and videos everyday.

“Much of what is on social media is not always reality, so kids are often feeling that they need to live up to other’s perfect life experiences or appearances,” Jurich says. “They don’t see the everyday stuff, just the fabulous, and it puts a lot of pressure on them.”

FOMO

Also weighing on today’s younger generations is the fear of missing out on things, also known as “FOMO.” Many people’s moods shift after seeing their friends via social media having a good time while they aren’t. This trend is particularly common in adolescents and young adults, and it can lead to feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

Online Community

Although social media facilitate certain issues, good can also come from these platforms.

“I think that social media could be a great way to reach kids who are isolated with symptoms of mental health by educating and starting positive conversations,” Jurich says. “Many of them would be more willing to say something online than they are in person. So hearing others’ stories and even sharing their own in that venue could be less intimidating and help them to reach out when they need it.”

Drug & Alcohol Use in Adolescents

Nearly 70 percent of high school seniors have tried alcohol, 50 percent have taken an illegal drug, and more than 20 percent have used a prescription drug for a non-medical reason, studies show. Research has found the majority of people are most likely to misuse drugs and alcohol during this transformative time.

Why is this the trend?

  • Underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex
    • The parts of the brain that process reward and pain first mature during childhood. However, the prefrontal cortex – responsible for controlling impulses, emotions, and decision-making – does not mature until people reach their mid-20s. Therefore, adolescents are motivated by the desire to feel pleasure and avoid pain, both of which are associated with drug and alcohol use.
  • Genetic factors
    • Certain genetic traits, for instance a low harm-avoidance personality trait, make individuals more susceptible to using drugs and alcohol.
    • Mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety also increase the likelihood an adolescent will turn to substances.
  • Social environment
    • Teens are more likely to try drugs and alcohol if their friends are also using.
  • Accessibility of drugs
    • Adolescents are at an increased risk of trying substances if they have easy access to them.
  • Family environment

Compared to adults, adolescents are much more likely to hide their substance use from loved ones. Adolescents are also less likely to show signs of a problem because they have a shorter history of use. However, there are still red flags.

What are the signs?

  • Loss of interest in school and hobbies
  • Sudden need for more money and unwillingness to explain spending habits
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, and an increased desire to be alone
  • Change in friends
  • Change in behavior or personality
  • Unresponsiveness to communication
  • Frequent rule-breaking, especially of curfew

While most adolescents who try drugs and alcohol do not have substance use disorders, the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder is greater for people who begin using in their early teens. According to a study, 15.2 percent of people who start drinking by age 14 develop substance use disorders, compared to 2.1 percent of those who wait until they are 21 or older.

What are the effects?

  • Difficulties with schoolwork
  • Relationship problems
  • Loss of interest in normal healthy activities
  • Impaired memory and thinking ability
  • Increased risk of contracting an infectious disease
  • Mental health problems—including substance use disorders
  • Increased possibility of partaking in unsafe sexual activities
  • Overdose
  • Death

The key in the battle against adolescent addiction is time: We need to involve adolescents in professional treatment programs as soon as possible. Adolescents are less likely to seek out help on their own, so it is crucial loved ones help them into treatment.

Co-Occurring Disorders: The Chicken or the Egg?

Known as a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder, substance abuse and mental health issues frequently occur together. In fact, 80% of individuals with addiction issues have a co-occurring mental health issue according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The question comes down to the chicken or the egg – which came first and which do we treat first? The mental health issue or the substance abuse issue? “The likelihood of succeeding in treatment is greatly enhanced when both are treated simultaneously. Integrated treatment approaches coordinate substance abuse and mental health interventions to treat the whole person,” said Sally Thoren, Executive Director of Gateway Alcohol & Drug Treatment in Chicago.

Desperate man

Individuals arriving at Gateway receive a comprehensive assessment and those who are found to have a mental health disorder may be admitted into our specialized dual diagnosis program. “We use a variety of clinically proved treatment methods to address co-occurring substance abuse and mental health problems at the same time, in the same program by the same treatment team,” said Thoren.

As each individual is unique, so should be their treatment plan. We work together with individuals to develop a customized treatment plan that capitalizes on methods that may have worked for them in the past. In addition, medication assisted treatment may be used if deemed appropriate for the individual.

If you know someone struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues, know that help is available. Visit RecoverGateway.org for more information.

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