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4 Powerful Lessons in Instagram Storytelling, Inspired by Mental Health Awareness Month

Culture

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Our stories can and should be more vulnerable, unpolished, and raw. These Instagram accounts are showing the way this Mental Health Awareness Month.

As you know, at Social Media Week we’re tremendous proponents of storytelling. Sharing our stories can endear us to one another, highlight experiences that seem remote or uncommon, and teach lessons that could otherwise seem too complicated or esoteric to explain. It’s especially attractive to share stories of challenge that feature a happy ending. But for millions of people across the United States and the United Kingdom, Mental Health Awareness Month (celebrated each May) means accessing and thinking about stories that are in progress—and often filled with challenge, pain, and shame.

Often a place where difficult stories are glossed over in favor of highlight reels and inspirational quotes, Instagram has come to life in an unexpected way over the last few Mays in a more real, vulnerable, and communal way. There are lessons to be learned from how individuals, brands, and social movements use this space to tell their stories during such an impactful time.

Here, we shine a light on a few of our favorites, as well as the lessons they could offer to our storytelling year round.

From Notes from Your Therapist: Small and simple can win out over polished and produced.

Teacher and therapist Allyson Dinneen has amassed a following of over 100,000 Instagrammers with her teachings about emotions, emotional intelligence, and counsel on relationships. But unlike so many other mental health “meme” accounts, her advice isn’t emblazoned on photos of flowers or vast sky landscapes. She has garnered considerable success, attention, and acknowledgment of breakthrough with something far simpler: brief, handwritten notes.

The notes carry power because followers can imagine themselves coming across her counsel on a coffee table at home, or in a wallet where the mantra was stashed for safekeeping. Seeing these tips and reminders in human handwriting somehow drives home the message: these challenges are real. You are human because, and not despite, having them. And another human being has them or understands them too.

From Talkspace: Brands can and should have real conversations about mental health.

While most accounts on mental health tend to share mantras and generalized tips for challenges surrounding depression, anxiety, panic, and grief, few are equipped to offer counsel. Talkspace, the text-based therapy app, can operate differently in this space thanks to their collective of licensed therapists. And this month, their use of Instagram Stories to engage those in need of help has been a shining example of user-generated content.

Urging their followers and users to use #MyMentalHealthLooksLike, Talkspace has used its stories in two key ways. First, they allow their current subscribers to share their go-to coping strategies through photos and videos, and share this content on their Stories feed. Second, they periodically open their Stories up to anonymous questions from followers and users, dispatching 2-3 Talkspace therapists to offer counsel on submitted mental health challenges. What results is a rich, accepting, and communal space for anyone in search of support. Particularly for users of the app, who often interact with Talkspace in a solo capacity, seeing the community of others who benefit from their services can be powerful.

From I Weigh: Starpower and UGC can converge in moving and important ways.

Former TV presenter and current The Good Place star Jameela Jamil got fed up with the laser focus on thinness, body manipulation, and constant questions about her size after an interview one day. Taking to her Instagram page, she added to a photo of herself all the things she preferred to be known for: lovely relationship, financial independence, willingness to speak out on women’s rights, and other things of that nature that have so little to do with society’s views of appearance. Her I Weigh movement, sparked by followers all across the world responding in kind with their own sources of pride that went beyond their weight, has gone on to be a powerful community for those struggling with body image and those fighting for body positivity.

The account has garnered the attention of celebrities who buy strongly into the message, and Jamil has parlayed that into an interview series on IGTV featuring guests like Sam Smith, Lizzo, and Rose McGowan. In their conversations, they’ve explored how relationship with body can impact mental health and how it intersects with concepts like gender, fame, and physical health. Through it all, Jamil (who still runs the account unassisted) is allowing celebrities and regular people to speak powerfully alongside one another in favor of a world where people are valued for who they are, and not what they can be altered or airbrushed to look like.

From Matt Haig and Rachel Cargle: The circle of those affected is wider than you know.

Without realizing it, many of us may have formulated who lives with – and gets to talk about – mental illness in a public forum like social media. But the benefit of social platforms is getting to find others who struggle in the same ways as you do, building community and allowing what previously happened in murmurs to gain volume and evolve into shouts.

Matt Haig is an author and playwright who has gained fame for his frank talk on depression—a topic not often talked about publicly by men. Rachel Cargle is an educator and activist who gained prominence for, among other reasons, starting the Therapy for Black Girls Fund. Each has used their presence on Instagram and other platforms to encourage populations that otherwise might minimize a need to talk about mental health, or might experience elevated stigman when doing so, to speak up and speak out. And the stories we choose to tell should widen how our personas are developed and marketed to. How far can our influence reach? Can you evolve to share those stories that are frequently lesser heard, but often more widely needed?

From across the Internet: this kind of vulnerable storytelling can – and should – happen year round.

Although there are accounts that will, in some ways, return to “regular programming” come June, there are Instagram accounts telling these challenging but ultimately rewarding and important stories year round. And those who want to lift up stories as part of their strategy can learn from how they do this. If you share stories of individuals, and their circumstances change, provide updates like @ttfapodcast does on behalf of its partner show, American Public Media’s Terrible, Thanks for Asking. Mix up the medium you use to tell stories: @depressedcakeshop highlights people who bake to raise money for mental health awareness, and often features striking photos of delicious, but depression-themed desserts. And @33foreverinc, started by the family of a young woman who died at 33 after a longtime struggle with depression and anxiety, shares stories from multiple perspectives (parents, siblings, friends) about how her journey and their loss feels.

It’s undeniable that these stories have power, and they hold a special power during this “sanctioned” month of sharing and awareness. But we know good stories should know no season. So take a lesson from these vulnerable, sometimes messy, but always inspiring accounts as you ponder how to tell stories without a veneer of perfection—this May, and beyond.

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