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Understanding The Role Of Social Media–Based Mental Health Support Among College Students: Survey And Semistructured Interviews

Piper Vornholt, Munmun De Choudhury

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Background Mental illness is a growing concern within many college campuses. Limited access to therapy resources, along with the fear of stigma, often prevents students from seeking help. Introducing supportive interventions, coping strategies, and mitigation programs might decrease the negative effects of mental illness among college students. Objective Many college students find social support for a variety of needs through social media platforms. With the pervasive adoption of social media sites in college populations, in this study, we examine whether and how these platforms may help meet college students’ mental health needs. Methods We first conducted a survey among 101 students, followed by semistructured interviews (n=11), of a large public university in the southeast region of the United States to understand whether, to what extent, and how students appropriate social media platforms to suit their struggle with mental health concerns. The interviews were intended to provide comprehensive information on students’ attitudes and their perceived benefits and limitations of social media as platforms for mental health support. Results Our survey revealed that a large number of participating students (71/101, 70.3%) had recently experienced some form of stress, anxiety, or other mental health challenges related to college life. Half of them (52/101, 51.5%) also reported having appropriated some social media platforms for self-disclosure or help, indicating the pervasiveness of this practice. Through our interviews, we obtained deeper insights into these initial observations. We identified specific academic, personal, and social life stressors; motivations behind social media use for mental health needs; and specific platform affordances that helped or hindered this use. Conclusions Students recognized the benefits of social media in helping connect with peers on campus and promoting informal and candid disclosures. However, they argued against complete anonymity in platforms for mental health help and advocated the need for privacy and boundary regulation mechanisms in social media platforms supporting this use. Our findings bear implications for informing campus counseling efforts and in designing social media–based mental health support tools for college students.