How to tell if your friend is having a breakdown on social media

Mic

Social media: home to memes, political rants, engagement announcements, baby photos, dog photos, fake news stories and clues about the mental health of your friends. 

About one in five adults experiences a mental illness each year. While some people begin experiencing mood disorders during childhood, many mental health disorders manifest when people are in their early 20s, Vice reported. People often face several life changes during their 20s, and the stress and unpredictability of those changes can often cause mental health issues to develop or surface. But more-established folks are vulnerable, too. For example, Kanye West had to cancel his recent tour after he was hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation; many suspected his music and his social media posts contained hints regarding his mental health.  

Social media could clue you in when a friend is feeling low or is in danger of hurting themselves. You've probably seen friends post rants on Facebook every once in a while. But how can you tell when it's a signal they're on the brink of a breakdown, rather than just letting off some steam? Here's what you need to know about mental health and social media. 

Warning signs of emotional distress on social media

You don't need to comb through every single one of a person's tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram photos to determine if they might be feeling depressed or unstable. The signs can often be found in a combination of behavior and words. Of course, if you're not a professional, these warning signs serve as red flags that a friend is in need of professional care. Here are three signals to keep an eye out for:

1. Look for a change in tone

Short, terse answers or long, unorganized posts that are out of character for a friend should grab your attention, Victor Schwartz, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at the Jed Foundation, said in a phone interview. Additionally, if a post is incoherent or disorganized, it could be a sign of drug use, which would be another cause for concern. 

"Something that feels different from the person's usual content or the way they're expressing him or herself, that should get your antenna up," he noted. "Think about the person's circumstance." If your friend spent six hours online during finals or while at work, that could be worrying, Schwartz said. 

2. Look for a preoccupation with violence, anger or getting revenge

Schwartz noted that an emphasis on violence or revenge might indicate someone could use support. "The important thing is to really trust your instincts," he said. 

On Facebook's Help a Friend in Need guide, the company suggests that negative posts expressing irritability (e.g., "I hate everyone" or "fuck the world") or use of negative emojis could be cause for concern. It's important to note, however, that posting a rant or note of anger doesn't necessarily mean a person is experiencing emotional distress. This is just one possible sign out of many.

A list of warning signs of emotional distress from Facebook's "Help a Friend In Need" guide  Facebook

3. Look for sad posts or photos

Does your friend keep sending you sad Snapchats in the wee hours of the morning? They could be struggling. Facebook's guide notes that statuses that say things like "Missed another chem lab — I'm such a waste" or "Another day in bed under the covers" could indicate someone is withdrawing and feeling depressed.   

Insomnia posts could be cause for concern.  Pinterest

A preoccupation with life being "worthless" or lacking any meaning could also hint that someone needs support, Schwartz said. "Obviously you have to distinguish something about 'what's the meaning of the world' and something more serious," he noted, explaining philosophical musings aren't always indicating distress. 

Photos on Instagram could also be a valuable mood detector. Research shows that people who are depressed post photos that are bluer, grayer and darker, the Washington Post reported. 

What to do when you're worried about a friend's social media posts

If your friend is in physical danger or is showing signs they might cause harm to themselves or others, you should contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Both services provide free, anonymous support 24/7. If there's an immediate danger or threat, call 911 immediately. If that's not the case, here's how to reach out. 

1. Have a conversation.

Talk it out — be it online, over the phone or in person, Schwartz recommends. Reach out and say something as simple as "Are you OK?" 

In-person conversations are best because you can hear someone's tone, Schwartz said. Plus, there might be other clues, such as their appearance or their posture, that you can't see online. 

Reaching out to someone you haven't seen in years isn't off limits, either. Schwartz recommends saying something like, "Listen, I know we aren't close friends but I'm concerned about you. Is there someone that's helping you?" If you aren't in the same location as this person, you could suggest they call a crisis hotline to speak with an expert. 

2. Be specific about why you're worried.

Schwartz said you should tell the friend why you're concerned. You might say to a friend: "You seem to be posting all these sad songs. What's up?" he noted. 

Facebook has a handy tool for reaching out casually on social media. When you see a concerning post, click the grey arrow in the upper right corner of a post. Then click "Report post," and then "I think it shouldn't be on Facebook." In the next menu, click "See more options" and then "It shows someone harming themself or planning to harm themself." When you click the first option, "offer help or support," Facebook gives you the option to send your friend the message in the screenshot below. 

Facebook's tool has a pre-written message you can send to friends.  Mic/Facebook

3. Tell them you will follow up in a few days.

During your conversation, let a friend know that you intend to check up on them in a few days. Knowing that someone is in their corner and will follow up is reassuring. 

Someone struggling doesn't always need professional support, Schwartz noted, explaining that knowing someone is offering support can go a long way toward making someone feel better. 

4. Contact family or another trusted adult.

If you're in a school setting, enlisting the help of a trusted teacher or counselor is a good idea, Schwartz noted. 

When it comes down to it, Schwartz said helping a friend is easier than it sounds. "Even if they're angry at you in the short run, they will be grateful that you looked out for them when the chips were down," Schwartz said. "Being there when the chips are down is a fundamental part of friendship."

Editor's note: For information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Both provide free, anonymous support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.