How often do you see posts on Facebook or Instagram that aren’t overflowing with positivity? From the constant updates about how easy and great life is to boasts about someone’s latest achievement – they can all be damaging to our mental health. So, this World Mental Health Day, writer and editor Raya lifts the lid on the potentially poisonous nature of social media – particularly if you have a disability.
One of the things I find hardest to stomach on social media is advice to ‘stay away from negative people’ or that ‘barriers and obstacles only exist in your mind’. For someone who has lived with disability since birth, I find such quotes not only insult, but actually increase my inner struggles.
I rarely discuss my feelings (and certainly not on the public forum of social media) for fear of being labelled as ‘negative’ or ‘moany’. But, having spoken to a number of people, I have discovered that I am not alone.
Mental wellbeing and disability
For as long as I can remember, I haven’t felt comfortable enough to talk about anything that has affected my mental wellbeing. This is partly because there has always been a ‘persona’ that I have felt I needed to portray at different stages of my life.
But it’s also because being a disabled female, and from an ethnic minority, has put added pressure on me. For a long time, I have felt that it is my duty to act ‘positive’, as an ambassador for the disabled community. I believe that I have to do my part in challenging society and the media’s portrayal of disabled people.
I guess I was lucky that during my teenage years social media did not exist. But there was a different form of pressure. It was one that came from the mind of a young naïve girl who lacked self-confidence and disliked her appearance, who was also desperate to fit in and be accepted.
I have had to deal with rejection, hurtful comments and, at times, being mocked. Yet I had no choice but to keep it to myself, to deal with it by being silent. I didn’t want to carry the label of ‘defenceless disabled girl’ who could not cope with mainstream school, especially after I had fought so hard to attend one.
I could not even talk about this to my family or friends. They saw me as strong and brave and I had to keep this up.
Social media and mental health
The advantage back then was that I did not scroll through social media seeing other disabled people enjoying themselves and making the most of their school days. Now, the opposite is true.
I have witnessed first-hand how both disabled and non-disabled people have endured abuse and bullying at the hands of their peers. No longer do I just see the positive posts from people, but the backlash of haters and trolls added to the mix.
So I began to believe that this is the norm. It made me feel fortunate that I was able to hide my pain and struggle. I became even more convinced that showing vulnerability would make me more of a target. However, if I acted strong and unhinged by whatever was thrown at me, then the bullies would know that they wouldn’t succeed.
Being an ambassador for disabled people
Although the years have passed, I am still not open about the difficulties I face because I have been taught or conditioned by society that showing vulnerability is a sign of negativity. This isn’t something that anyone needs in their lives. If you are a disabled person wanting to be accepted, then it feels as if you have to put in more effort than your average non-disabled person.
I am trying to convince people to see beyond my disability, so surely if I show any sort of weakness or real life then that will automatically be attributed to my condition, which is far from the truth. But the end result will be counterproductive, as it will be assumed that I am depressed because of my disability and will be slowly distanced away from.
This brings back my earlier point, if you are a disabled person you have a double weight on your shoulder – in your quest to make people accept disability you have to offer the best version of it.
But in not being true about or to yourself, you’re harming your own mental health by carrying so many bottled up feelings, and other people’s mental health by presenting an unrealistic view of life.
Looking for perspective
You will often see the trend on social media where so many disabled people/influencer will post the best version of their daily life. Initially, I used to scroll through and think, “Why do I lack these qualities?” “Why do I struggle when so many other people with more severe disability are coping brilliantly and living their life to the full?”
I became convinced that the problem must lie within me and not society. To cope with this feeling I started swiping or skipping such posts. I needed a refuge within my own community of disabled people. But sadly I got the opposite and felt totally excluded.
I joined closed Facebook groups because I believed that that would be a protective environment where people would be more open as there was no audience to serve. I was partly right – people were more open about different issues. But no one ever discussed their mental health or emotional battles.
Posting what’s real on social media
In the last few weeks, I have finally found a figure I was eager to follow and admire. To me, she is everything I struggle to be – open and honest.
Jemma, a model, lives with Muscular Dystrophy. I started following her on Instagram three years ago because I was intrigued – you rarely see disabled people being models, let alone those with muscle weakness. She had also started using a feeding tube.
Getting a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) is when I started following her account more closely. It was no longer full of photos of her modelling, but it became almost a personal blog of her battle with this sudden and rapid change in her life.
View this post on Instagram
Keep going. Keep growing. 👊👊👊👊 #resilience #fightlikeagirl #fighter #warrior #mdfamily #gtube #oesophagealdysmotility #tubie #limbgirdlemd #strength #bodyconfidence #hope #selflove #phoneart #phoneographic #selfportrait #phoneseries #newwork #lovethyself #musulardystrophy #tubielife #strength #strong #mood #pegfeed #peg #youarebeautiful #blog #blogging #yourbodyisbeaut #normalise
I watched her emotional and physical roller-coaster as she attached an invasive and overtly visible tube to her body – a body that she has always loved and been proud to confidently model.
Through her daily posts, I began to read her honest account of this journey. How she cries herself to sleep but pushes herself to cope. How she detests the tube and her body, but knows that she has no option other than to learn to love it again and accept the tube as an integral part of her life.
View this post on Instagram
It is estimated that there are currently approximately 3,430 people in the UK receiving home enteral feeding (the delivery of a liquid feed through a tube into the stomach or small bowel). I never thought I would be the 3,431st to add to that list of people, but life has a habit of suprising the hell out of you when you least expect it, keeping you constantly on your toes ( quite literally in some cases) So OK, just under three & a half thousand is not millions, but it is a significant amount of tube fed individuals & in the “tubie” community it becomes a normal way of life… I have experienced & still experience low mood, trauma, feelings of isolation, lost body confidence, feeling unattractive, hell even disgust at times… So lets normalise this, let’s not be ashamed of the fight & the battles we have had to endure to keep going ! Let’s be proud, proud of it all… This is why I have been posting photos of me with my tube…. to NORMALISE it for myself & for others who may need some help who are in the same or similar situation. This is not going away for me, this is always going to be part of me… for many others it is always going to be part of them. If you are struggling, hit me up, DM or PM AM or PM Don’t hide away, You are beautiful ❤❤❤❤ #pegfeed #peg #youarebeautiful #blog #blogging #yourbodyisbeaut #normalise #livelife #smile #change #support #bodyconfidence #beautiful #tubie #friyay #igers #gtube
Although I don’t share Jemma’s physical issues, I am in awe of her honesty and her ability to detail emotions that I never see anyone on social media share so openly.
In my eyes, she has become an icon for real change. A change to make our world, and especially the virtual one, a more inclusive one, where people can be encouraged to share their low days as well as the positive side of life.
We must be more balanced and honest in what we post or share on social media. Seeing quotes that advise us to keep away from anyone negativity makes people hide their problems for fear of being left alone. If we want to change the ‘negativity’ in people to positivity, we need to focus on the behaviour to find the cause and help to change it.
Social media is a powerful tool for people living with disability. But it can also have a very damaging effect. That is why we all need to be more careful and considerate when we post on social media.
Remember that discussing your struggles rather than just focusing on your achievements is equally, if not more, important as it offers hope.
By Raya AlJadir
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