DM, M.D.: Students promote mental health awareness through Twitter

ASU students with popular Twitter accounts utilize their platforms to offer resources and support to their peers and followers

A year ago, Michaela Okland was on bedrest and took a semester off from ASU due to a necessary back surgery. At least, that's what she told everyone.

"When I left school, it was because I was failing out of all my classes," Okland said. "I was in therapy, a couple of different kinds of therapy. I had to leave and figure that out before I could come back to school and be successful."

Now a senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on media analysis and English linguistics, Okland is back at ASU and thriving. 

During her time away from ASU, Okland took classes online, attended therapy and used the mental health app Sibly. Upon returning to ASU, Okland found an outlet for talking about the less than picture-perfect aspects of her life through social media.

Her Twitter account @MichaelaOkla has steadily grown to well over 70,000 followers, and its popularity has even resulting in job offers.

Although her most popular tweets are about the funny aspects of her life, it is important to Okland to address the not so funny aspects as well.

"I think my followers on Twitter think that I'm very put together and my life is really great," she said. "I need to tell them that it's not because so many people message me about that kind of stuff." 

A variety of factors, including objectification she felt from the attention she received on Instagram, frequent alcohol use and pursing a major she wasn't passionate about, contributed to the deterioration of Okland's mental health. 

Okland frequently discusses controversial and personal matters ranging from political opinions to boy troubles, but disclosing her struggles with mental health was something new to her.

"I think in college it's a lot easier to get to that totally hopeless place where no one's keeping you in check, and you can go weeks without doing anything of value or substance because you just don't feel like it," Okland said.

Okland made active efforts to get back on track, and once she felt recovered enough she knew that she had to speak out.

"Mental health is really important to me, it's kind of the base of everything else you do," Okland said. "I think a lot of people don't know where to go for support for mental health or don't have ideas of how they can get better. They just know they're in that place everyday, and they're sad and they don't want to do anything and they don't have any drive anymore."

Okland's followers have been active in telling her about the impact she's had on their lives simply by opening up about her own struggles.

"I have a lot of people just saying that seeing someone else talk about it helps them with theirs, because when you're in that place it feels permanent," Okland said. 

Aaron Krasnow, the ASU Counseling Services associate vice president and director, said that accessing online support could be a beneficial tool for struggling students.

"For all of us, regardless of age, it's important to have peers who you can relate to and especially important when you're going through a difficult time," Krasnow said. "What your peers can do is, they can normalize those experiences where you feel different or abnormal. When it comes to things like mental health, it's especially critical."

He said peer support works to normalize taboo issues through social norming, which allows students to see themselves through a de-stigmatized lens.

"Although we've made a lot of progress as a society, there's still quite a bit of stigma associated with depression or anxiety," Krasnow said. "When peers can model that it's normal to experience those things ... it has a different kind of impact than when you hear it from a professional."

Jodie Scarborough, an interdisciplinary studies senior with concentrations in special event management and media analysis, is widely known on Twitter as @jodieegrace and also uses her platform to advocate for mental health.

"I've struggled a lot with anxiety and depression ever since I came here," Scarborough said. "Balancing work and school and all of that really put a lot of pressure on me. I go once a week (to therapy) and it helps a lot."

Scarborough said her followers open up to her about their own struggles including combatting negative online presences, their negative self image and even past traumas.

She encourages her followers to continue to be vocal about their own struggles and to seek help if they need it.

"Definitely don't be afraid to reach out to people," Scarborough said. "I try to let my followers know as much as possible with that. I know you don't know me but if you want to talk to anyone, feel free to message me."

Joey Gallagher (@JoeyDG54), a junior studying interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in marketing communications, said he found a stigma online for men who want to open up about their struggles with mental illness.

"I've always thought about going through counseling which I regret not going through," Gallagher said. "I'd always go to close friends or other people who've have been going through the same similar situations and just talking to them."

Scarborough commended her male friends with popular followings for speaking out about difficult topics, ranging from mental health to sexual harassment and political issues.

"They're really open with supporting those subjects and using their audience to help bring awareness to it, which I think is cool even if it doesn't affect them personally," Scarborough said.

Okland, Scarborough and Gallagher are part of a Twitter-based group chat that includes users with other popular accounts such as @NOTVIKING and @holyschnitt who also speak out about their personal struggles through social media.

Krasnow said social media can be a powerful tool for students with large followings to normalize dealing with and seeking help for mental health concerns.

Krasnow also said that ASU offers counseling and health services, training for faculty and staff "on recognizing and supporting students who may be experiencing mental health concerns" and peer impact program like Devils 4 Devils.

Stephanie Cahill, a junior studying psychology, is the president of Active Minds, an ASU club which focuses on destigmatizing conversations on mental health.

“The most important thing dealing with mental health and college students is talking about it,” Cahill said.

Last year, the organization hosted the first mental health conference for ASU and had student speakers talk about their mental health experiences on campus, which Cahill said opened up opportunities for further discussion among students who felt less isolated and ostracized.

“We wanted to talk about it and we want to make it so it's not necessarily a negative connotation every single time," she said. "We should definitely be able to have an open conversation.”


Reach the reporter at sabine.galvis@asu.edu or follow @sabinegalvis on Twitter.

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