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Examining How Social Media Impacts Mental Health

March 12, 2020

Cofounders of Stanford Lab to Present Session at Elevate

Social media isn’t known for its positive influence on mental health, but Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, and Gowri Aragam, MD, are working to change that.

Nina Vasan, MD, MBA
Nina Vasan, MD, MBA

“While there is a lot of backlash about social media due to some research studies suggesting that use of social media can worsen things like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, we have chosen to use social media to help deliver tools and resources to users to improve their health and well-being, which we see as democratizing mental health care,” said Dr. Vasan, founder and executive director of Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation at Stanford University School of Medicine, California.

“Social media can be used for good.”

During their upcoming session at Elevate by Psych Congress, Dr. Vasan and Dr. Aragam, cofounder and chief clinical officer at Brainstorm, will talk about their efforts to leverage social media for better mental health. The pair were behind Pinterest’s recent “compassionate search” initiative, which offers users free, evidence-based exercises to ease symptoms of stress, depression, and self-harm.

“Pinterest came to us because they saw that some of the most common search terms users had were related to mental health, and they wanted to be able to deliver scientifically robust and clinically valid tools to their users,” said Dr. Vasan, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford who chairs the American Psychiatric Association Committee on Innovation.

“It has been exciting for us to take what we do daily in clinic with our patients one-on-one and think about how to apply that experience to creating similarly helpful tools to people on social media.”

Gowri Aragam, MD
Gowri Aragam, MD

Thanks to Drs. Vasan and Aragam, Pinterest users who search mental health terms now have access to exercises that draw from cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and gratitude. The idea is to steer pinners toward healthy coping methods for dealing with intense emotions, such as journaling, drawing, or even holding and focusing on an ice cube as it melts.

In today’s society, the allure of social media is strong.

“In our practices, especially in the emergency room where we engage with patients in the midst of acute psychiatric crises, we have been seeing more patients—especially adolescents—who use social media to express their negative emotions or suicidal thoughts,” said Dr. Aragam, clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

By equipping social media platforms with evidence-based content that is beneficial rather than detrimental, Stanford Brainstorm is making good on its commitment to meet people where they are.

“We believe it is our responsibility as psychiatrists to apply our clinical insights to helping people,” said Dr. Vasan, “whether they are in our clinic or online.”

—Jolynn Tumolo

The 2020 Elevate by Psych Congress conference is being held virtually July 25-27, 2020.

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