January 27, 2020

A Baby Step in the Marathonic Journey of Mental Wellness

Photo by Paulus Rusyanto/EyeEm/Getty Images

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 into a six-block radius of Philadelphia hosting 10,000 college students about whom I know nothing. I latch onto the first group of people with whom I am able to sustain at least a two-minute conversation. The question put on my mind is: 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. The barrage of Facebook events, Snapchat stories and Instagram videos and photos is astounding. Everyone seems to be having the night of their lives: Posts roll in every minute, with people dancing on tabletops, pouring 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 photoshoots.

‍My ability to detect this transparency doesn’t mean that I don’t participate — I am now the artistic director of my own photoshoot, 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 his or her phone to see the number of “likes” that stream in minute after minute. It felt good to be a part of the crowd. We 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 Triathlon. 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 would alleviate my undying pain.

I struggled to be open about what I was going through. It wasn’t as though I didn’t have people to confide in or turn to for support but I didn’t even really know how to articulate it. 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 on my extensive mental journey.

‍What made it the hardest, though, was Instagram.

‍I opened my Instagram every 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. I attached so much weight to it that 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, it seems hilarious that I would think it to be so important but I guess I was not the person 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 users, 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 therapy, I conducted conversations with other students in order to make deeper interpersonal connections and get a sense of what people were experiencing. Everyone I spoke with was 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 lack of sleep. I would never have been able to guess it from surfing through their Instagram feeds.

‍If there is one thing we have in common, it is that each of us is going to experience adversity. 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 like robots, unfeeling and insusceptible. We show to others only what is deemed “likeable.” On Instagram, that means feigned happiness and forced smiles. That means flat 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 honest 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 my parents who grew up without social media. 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 in a world dominated by technology and social media. Suicide is an epidemic. Mental health issues affect every individual. Why is it that college students strive to maintain their physical health by going to a gym or a doctor but few strive to work on their mental health by seeking therapy, improving sleep habits or even having one meaningful conversation a week? This needs to be addressed. It is urgent and requires participation from everyone on all fronts. This is going to take a monumental effort.

‍Let’s start by 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 marathonic journey toward mental wellness,t and I am proud of you. Let it carry you to take even more steps. Keep running this race until everyone finishes.

‍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.
Open up.
Be authentic.
That’s how we run the marathon of life.

Henry Platt is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and music. He is a member of the university’s Counterparts a cappella group and an advocate for mental wellness.