Mental health effects of social media still unclear

Psychiatrists have “no idea” what social media is doing to people’s brains, a mental health specialist has claimed following rising concerns of cyber-bullying among teenagers.

Dinesh Bhugra, professor of mental illness and diversity at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, made the claim after the government announced its plan to introduce free training in psychiatric illness to secondary school staff across England.

He said about 50 per cent of psychiatric disorders in adulthood started below the age of 15 and three quarters began before people turned 24. Bhugra told Eastern Eye it was “absolutely critical” children were taught about mental health at a young age to prevent severe problems developing in adulthood.

He said: “We have no idea what social media is doing to people’s brains and structures. There have been reports of teenagers committing suicide because they posted something on Instagram and didn’t get a certain number of likes within a certain period – there may have been other vulnerability factors as well.”

Bhugra added it was important for children to identify and manage stress at an early stage. “It is inevitable that rates of stress and psychiatric disorders are rising. There is quite strong research evidence that you really need to start preparing people at a young age, and the best option is starting at home and at schools,” he explained.

The president of the World Psychiatric Association said suffering from bullying, sexual, physical or emotional abuse in childhood could trigger psychiatric problems in adulthood.

“There is evidence that children who have been abused go on to be more vulnerable to disorders – particularly things like self-harm, eating disorders, low self-image, chronic anxiety and chronic depression,” he said.

“Sometimes people report post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s society’s responsibility to train children to look out for the warning signs when they are feeling stressed.”

Bhugra explained that pressure to perform in exams and parental expectation was placing a heavy burden on young people. He added anecdotal evidence from India revealed that suicide rates rose considerably when exam results came out.

Remaining physically active and planning how to switch off and relax during exam periods could help to release tension, according to the expert.

For young people from diverse backgrounds, cultural conflict can also play a part in triggering mental health issues, according to previous research carried out by the professor.

Bhugra discovered there were high rates of attempted self-harm among Asian women because of cultural conflict within their families.

“It starts at the age of 18 when a new world opens up; you gather different values and then you get challenged with a very traditional view of female role expectations.

“The tension between what the community expects an individual to do and what the larger community expects them to do can cause a tension and cultural conflict,” he explained.

The psychiatric specialist added that one of the challenges for the NHS was to take cultural issues into account when treating patients.

In a speech last week, Theresa May vowed to tackle the “completely unacceptable stigma” surrounding mental illness. The prime minister said mental illness would be tackled in classrooms and at work to prevent it from becoming “entrenched” in society.

Writing in Eastern Eye, Kamaldeep Bhui, a professor of cultu-ral psychiatry, said young people should be supported to flourish, and given the tools to manage their health and emotional distress.

Bhui said: “This is a skill that needs to be taught in schools, at home, and in families so parents and siblings can all benefit. The challenges young people have in taking exams and entering employment have never been so demanding and stressful.

“Rather than see this as an affliction, we as a society, as professionals and parents, should be seeing this as an opportunity to teach life-long skills in resilience and self-care to cope with adversity as best possible.”