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Councillors told social media and misinformation can lead people ‘down a dark path’

Northern Ireland’s interim Mental Health Champion has warned of the dangers of social media.

Following a presentation to Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, Professor Siobhan O’Neill took questions from councillors accessing the meeting both from the chamber and remotely.

Council’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Kevin Savage, asked about the impact social media has on society and if the misinformation about coronavirus available on it has an adverse impact on people’s mental health.

Professor O’Neill said it was always important to have a healthy debate and challenge data, but warned that social media can present a lot of harmful misinformation as well.

“There is a fine line between misinformation and healthy debate,” said Professor O’Neill. “We should always be able to question the data.

“However, there is a lot of very harmful misinformation about the effectiveness of vaccines in dealing with the virus.

“Some of the fact checking services have been good at keeping on top of this but that often requires the user to be proactive and seek out these services.

“Recently, Facebook and Twitter have started to label posts making those reading aware that the statement within may not be supported by fact.”

Aside from the issues concerning social media and the pandemic, Professor O’Neill said used correctly, social media can be a great tool but acknowledged for many it can lead down a dark path.

“Social media can be a positive,” said Professor O’Neill. “It allows us to communicate and connect in ways we never would have imagined doing so before.

“However, there can also be a lot of trolling and people can get sucked into a situation where they believe that is the real world.

“When using social media it is important to realise it is an artificial reality and other users are not our real and true friends and of course, there is a lot of harmful imagery that can glamorise suicide circulating on social media.

“With social media, there are a lot of elements that need to be considered when used correctly it can be a positive but the reality is, it will not be going away any time soon.”

DUP Alderman Gareth Wilson likened the potential mental health impacts of the pandemic to a tsunami and asked Professor O’Neill what could be done to tackle this issue.

Professor O’Neill said prevention is always better than the cure and told members it was important leaders maintained the public’s trust.

“Hopefully we can have a message and a plan in place, having faith in our leaders is really important,” said Professor O’Neill.

“At a more personal level, a calming approach is really important but we will need to help people with the practical things as well.

“It is important that a network of support is established. I would like to see more multi-disciplinary teams in primary care rolled out across Northern Ireland.

“Ideally we would be getting people in to the system early when they are starting to slip down the road to mental illness, that is so important.”

Professor O’Neill said it is important to realise that so many steps can be taken that does not involve medication.

“There is lots we can that does not involve medicating people,” said Professor O’Neill. Social prescribing can be very effective and we need to roll that out right across primary care.

“Self management is also important, getting out for exercise has a very powerful effect on a person’s mental health.”

Alliance party group leader, Councillor Eoin Tennyson said he had been receiving an increasing number of calls from people in distress and asked what the best thing he could say, at a human level, to these people was.

Professor O’Neill told him it was important to really listen to what the person is saying in that moment and responding to their concerns while not shying away from asking the necessary questions.

“The first thing is to listen,” said Professor O’Neill. “It is about being with that person and really hearing them and acting on the basis of the information you have.

“There are a few things you can do, if you think they might be suicidal ask them the question directly, then think if there is a plan or method.

“You are not going to give them the idea, don’t worry about that, but you could help them disclose something that will allow you to get them help straight away.

“If you are in this position, phone Lifeline, don’t feel that stuff has to be kept confidential – get the person help, particularly if there is a plan in place.

“If they are in a state of crisis they can go to the Emergency Department, that is a safe environment. Most people are seen within two hours and that can be the starting point on their road to recovery.

“If they are in a less urgent position you can get them to check in with their GP.”

Professor O’Neill also underlined the importance of establishing and maintaining trust with individuals.

“Don’t make any promises you can’t keep,” said Professor O’Neill.

“Don’t agree to contact them at a certain time and then miss it, this will cause them to experience rejection which is not what they need.

“Never promise to keep the conversation confidential, you can’t keep that promise and as local councillors it is really important you direct people to services and continue to promote wellbeing.

“It is also important to know when you are stressed. If you are really stressed you are not in a good place to listen. Make sure you are in the right frame of mind to get them the help they need.”

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