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Coronavirus isolation fuels surge in mental health posts on Instagram

Meira Gebel

On Wednesday, Hannah Shurey posted an illustration of a sloth hanging from a branch on Instagram with the caption “hang in there.”

To her surprise, the post’s comment section was soon filled with mentions, as people tagged others with messages like “Thought of you!” and “Needed this!”

Shurey runs the account @thehappyslothclub, which has more than 166,000 followers. She started the account in late 2018 as a way to spread positive messages on social media after she had been comparing herself to others on the platform for too long.

The account has always been geared toward mental health, but has exploded in popularity in recent weeks as the coronavirus has spread across the globe. Shurey said she’s gained more than 15,000 followers, seen a surge in engagement, and her direct messages are flooded with Instagram users sharing their quarantine stories and asking for resources. 

“A lot of people are alone right now and are looking online to find and feel like they have a community,” said Shurey, who lives in Wales. “There’s a lot of fear.”

As millions self-isolate in their homes to slow the spread of the virus, officially known as COVID-19, many are turning to screens for comfort. Screen time reports have skyrocketed as people cling to social media, “doom surfing” to get the latest information. The demand for online counseling has also risen. 

On Instagram, there are over 16 million posts with the hashtag #mentalhealth — a number that’s growing daily. Scroll through your feed and you may see your cousin or other relative documenting her indoor workout routine, a colleague’s quarantine diet, a neighbor livestreaming their meditation, or a friend sharing their struggles with mental health and tips for others on how to handle their own.

In a statement to Digital Trends, an Instagram spokesperson said: “We’re seeing many members of our community take to Instagram to share how they’re coping with mental health challenges during this time.”

Mental health has always been important to Brenna Nation, who lives in Maryland. She’s experienced panic attacks since she was young and routinely attends therapy — though, right now, it’s virtual.

From the outside, her Instagram account @b.fitnation looks like a fitness blog. But Nation often divulges her difficulties dealing with anxiety and calorie counting in the captions. She said the account allows her to hold herself accountable, and give comfort to those who may be fighting similar battles.

The coronavirus has not been easy for her, or her 20,500 followers, based on the responses she’s been receiving. 

“The DMs I get have shifted from what my diet is like to what resources I use for therapy,” she said. “So, I am surprised, people have been coming out and are admitting that they are battling anxiety and this is triggering it.”

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Cambridge illustrator Lizzie Knott felt the same shift. 

“People who haven’t had mental health problems before all this are starting to feel what anxiety feels like,” said Knott. “So that’s why there’s more people reaching out to people like me who have and can give advice.”

Knott created a guide called “Looking After Your Mental Health Whilst Self Isolating,” which was shared on popular pages like @emotions_therapy and @breakingtaboo.

In it, Knott, who describes herself as a visual communicator, features tips like “stick to a routine” and “note down your thoughts” alongside depictions of friends toasting each other via videoconference, colored with calming hues of burnt orange and matte mauve. 

Soon after, people started reaching out to thank her. In one message, a user said, “Of all the mental health self care posts I’ve seen in this time, this made me feel the most calm and supported.”

And even though these unprecedented times are scary, as more countries mandate shelter-in-place orders and coronavirus cases continue to rise, Knott believes it has also opened the door to talking more frankly about mental health. 

“This has made Instagram more of a community because we all feel really similar, we all can relate to each other, all of our routines have changed,” said Knott. “We all get it.”