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Social media is not a guessing game


by Susanna Harris

Around 40% of graduate students deal with depression or anxiety, according to a 2018 article from Nature Biotechnology. This statistic actually made me feel better; if two out of every five students I met face some of my same mental health issues, I wasn’t as alone or inadequate as I’d feared. I wondered who else would benefit from knowing about this study, and whether we could better support each other.

I started The PhDepression account on Instagram to fight stigma and increase visibility of mental illness in higher education through supportive conversation. Instagram is the fastest-growing social media platform, the #hashtag system helps share ideas, and the major demographic of Instagram (18 to 35-year olds) aligns with the demographics in graduate school. Importantly, social media misrepresentation mirrors what is found in academia: everyone looks perfect in their self-curated profile pages but is quietly managing some obstacle or difficulty. 

Our account responds to a recent push from Instagram users for “Instagram vs reality” posts shows the imperfect side of life that isn’t as readily appreciated on a visually-driven site. On our page, we show smiling academics who are managing their mental health issues, accompanied with the not-so-pretty story they’ve experienced. This powerful contradiction highlights that just because people look "fine" doesn’t mean they are.

Since launching The PhDepression in March 2018, we have expanded to other social media platforms, each with their own benefits and downfalls. Twitter spreads ideas exponentially but authors can lose control of the message. A website provides easily searchable material and the most widely accepted platform but is harder build and maintain an audience and requires extensive upkeep. Facebook is saturated and changing rapidly. When choosing how to direct your efforts to different platforms, weigh the pros and cons, and start with your best guess – you can always adapt as you go!

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A snapshot of an Instagram insight from The PhDepression| Image captured by Susanna Harris

The Instagram Business Profile settings allow us to easily “crosspost” to other platforms and increase interaction based on topic and time of post. Instagram shares followers’ information with Business Profiles, a free feature called Insights that includes locations, ages, and relative activities (what times followers are engaging with the posts and stories, by days of the week or time of day). I’ve included a snapshot of some “behind the scenes” Insights information from last month. This image displays the interactions followers have had with our page, namely visits to our Instagram profile and to our website.

Most questions about using each platform can be answered by Google searches of how marketing companies build their social media resources. Hundreds of articles give detailed explanations of how to build engaging pages; if you invest the time to find and follow the suggestions, you can be rewarded with rapid growth.

We hope our community members feel less alone in their struggles and failures. Social media provides a place for discussion and connection – building our pages efficiently and effectively helps us to reach the largest audience possible. Engaging with an international group of researchers has been incredibly rewarding and cements that we are more similar than different – we are flawed, we are strong, and we are resilient.


About Susanna Harris

Susanna Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in microbiology at UNC-Chapel Hill. She manages depression and recently “came out” about taking medication and regularly seeing a therapist. She aims to increase visibility and support to those afflicted by mental health issues and to end the stigma of mental health issues affecting PhD trainees and graduates. You can find Susanna on Twitter and Instagram. You can also visit The PhDepression's website and follow on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Join in the conversation and let us know what you thought of the post!