One trope of our connected world is its ironic ability to disconnect. We stare into our smartphones while failing to see the person right next to us. We click “like” and feel we’ve done our part instead of going to that city council meeting or voting booth. But at The Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion of Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities, based at the college’s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, researchers and clinicians are learning that, for some in the community, social media is the key to connection.
“Social media use is associated with greater community participation, and it’s not associated with greater loneliness,” says Eugene Brusilovskiy, the collaborative’s director of data analytics and the director of Temple’s Laboratory on Geography, Mobility and Disability. In fact, he says, “one of the reasons people state they use social media is to reduce loneliness.”
Brusilovskiy led a recent study that surveyed 232 people at 18 mental health organizations across the U.S. All were identified as living with a serious mental illness (SMI) such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia-spectrum disorder that result in substantial and persistent interference with the ability to participate in major life activities. They answered questions about community participation, civic engagement, quality of life, loneliness, psychiatric symptoms, and social media use.
The study’s findings lined up with what Brusilovskiy and his team expected to see, but they run counter to the conventional belief—and indeed some academic research—that says social media use among the general population can lead to increased isolation and lower perceived quality of life. What’s the difference?
“The difference is really isolation versus engagement. One of the things we know is that people with SMI may be in the community but they’re not always a part of the community,” says Gretchen Snethen, an assistant director at the Collaborative and assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences. “Many experience a lot of isolation, they may be sedentary, a lot of their participation is within their mental health facility. We’ve found that people who participate independently in the community report more positive outcomes.”
Social media holds keys to connection that can be especially helpful for people with psychiatric disabilities. The ease of communication it affords may be particularly important for individuals who have communication barriers, Snethen says. “It also allows people to form connections based on interests and not just on proximity within a mental health agency,” she says.
Importantly, they also report using social media to learn about and attend nearby events. That increased level of actual community engagement is what the researchers believe is crucial to improved psychosocial outcomes.
And yet, of the people in this survey, only 33 percent of respondents have any social media account, compared with the general population, where 74 percent of people have at least one social media account. “It’s a substantially lower rate than in the population, even after you adjust for demographics,” Brusilovskiy says.
Snethen and Brusilovskiy hope their findings may be used to develop social-media-based interventions for people with SMI and to improve access to social media resources. “Service providers may be able to think of creative ways in which clients can utilize social media [to enhance] social support, community participation, and [possibly] labor force participation,” Brusilovskiy says.
“Social media is a part of everyday life, and it’s a communication tool that can be used for good,” Snethen says. “If a person identifies it as something that will enhance their lives, we want to empower them to access and use it.”
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