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How Instagram's new update is sabotaging self-help communities


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Instagram is a blossoming medium for fashion bloggers, fitness enthusiasts and visual creatives alike. But it is also an invaluable tool for many suffering from mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, OCD and numerable strands of eating disorder.

It’s true that, thanks to the incredible publicity provided by Prince Harry and Prince William in their MindsTogether campaign this April, mental health is currently a big talking point in public media. But under the radar, social media has for a long time been home to hidden communities of mental health sufferers, seeking refuge and support in this quiet, anonymous and yet still widely influential online support network.

It’s no secret that support for mental health sufferers is sufficiently lacking in most areas of the U.K. Resources, whether inpatient or outpatient, are stretched beyond capacity, and widely dispersed. Even after being diagnosed, NHS waiting lists can be leave mental health patients waiting months for therapy, which for many will later prove impossible to see out due to simple factors such as time or location. For many, recovery and rehabilitation is a journey undertaken independently.

Instagram, by being introduced as separate from Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and other more identity conscious social platforms has, since its start up in 2010, come to stand as a replacement medium for organised support groups or group therapies for these solo-sufferers. Brought together by the modern language of #hashtags, mental health sufferers let down by the public health system have established hidden recovery communities where they can receive support, encouragement and inspiration from others on the same journey.

Instagram, perhaps ironically, provides these communities with a sense of security through anonymity. The user's full name need appear no-where on their profile, nor need they expose their location or even show their face on their profiles. Following is impersonal, and quickly undone. But even more crucially, Instagram-enabled mental health sufferers to establish a reliable first-response support system by organising the feed in chronological order.

This is where Instagram communities have helped such a lot of people overcome the silent demons of their conditions. By posting, the individual immediately reaches out to the hundreds of fellow suffers, each on hand to support each other and offer that understanding and advice which might just help them through those darkest moments unscathed. But Instagram’s newest update might just see these self-help communities crumble, leaving suffers once again, to face the dark alone.

Successful recovery from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders are all about the long-term goal. And for those living with a sufferer, it can be very easy to forget about the immediacy of the day-to-day issues being faced. Mental health conditions such as these are exhausting both for the sufferer and for those who care about them. And no matter how much support a sufferer has, the moments of greatest inner-turmoil and self-doubt will always come when no-one else is around.

The latest Instagram update, officially brought in at the end of March, has introduced a reformed method of organising the feed. Using the same allegorical system as used by Facebook, Instagram now organises posts by what it determines will be of most interest to the user. This feature in not an optional component of the update, and is not one Instagram seems likely to retract. And yet, the damage it is already inflicting on these self-help communities could soon render this most valuable resource obsolete. By denying users with the ability to organise their feeds in chronological order, Instagram has subsequently denied these recovery communities the immediacy their hand-held support system once offered.

To the average user this update may well offer more convenient browsing, while enabling the less active users to stay in touch with the content they really want to see. But for these recovery account-holders, who post as often as six times a day, this subtle change to Instagram's layout will have huge effects on the way they use the platform.

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