Concordia Public Scholar Fanny Gravel-Patry is researching social media use and mental illness

The PhD candidate in communication studies explores how women’s Instagram practices can be tools for care and healing

Fanny Gravel-Patry believes that women’s Instagram habits can reveal important gaps in mental health services.

“Instagram practices are more than just a superficial routine. They can highlight neglect in mental health care and studying them is necessary in order to get a more granular picture of the state of mental health in our society,” says the Public Scholar and communications studies doctoral candidate.

“Social media can function as a tool for care when people use it to access or share information and resources related to mental health that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.”

Gravel-Patry is an active member of the Feminist Media Studio, and her research is supported by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC) and Concordia.

‘We developed a language to speak about anxiety’

What inspired you to study mental illness and social media?

Fanny Gravel-Patry: It was first and foremost my personal experience living with anxiety and depression, and my own use of Instagram as part of my recovery process. I started to follow mental illness content and pages right about when I started my PhD in 2017.

It’s also around that time that this type of content started to become popular, especially within feminist and anti-racist networks like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. I think people were looking for ways to reduce the constant circulation of traumatic content on social media by foregrounding soothing images and just focusing on their healing.

In what way can social media function as a tool for care? What are communities and practices of care?

FGP: Communities and practices of care are the affective attachments, connections and networks that take shape on Instagram and move into users’ everyday routines. Most of my participants do not feel the need to speak to other users in order to get that feeling of community. That’s also where the idea of practice comes in.

There is a very gestural and habitual dimension to these communities, which is the everyday act of scrolling your feed, sharing posts in your stories or with a friend, sometimes taking a screen capture. This may seem banal to most users, but can be transformational to others.

Some people maintain that social media is responsible for a general increase in our society’s anxiety levels. Are we suffering more from anxiety than before?

FGP: I don’t think people are suffering from anxiety more now than previous generations, but I think we definitely talk about it more. This comes in part from the fact that we developed a language to speak about it in part through Instagram.

A lot of people have written about how anxiety is the disease of our generation. And while I think it’s great that people are speaking more openly about their mental-health struggles, I also think there’s a tendency to equate stress with anxiety, when they are actually two different things.

Stress is something you can identify, whereas anxiety is a generalized feeling that can happen for no reason and it can really be debilitating.

Big-picture question: In your opinion, what are some of the root causes of anxiety and mental illness in our society today?

FGP: This is a very big question, and I don’t know if I am equipped to answer it properly. In my opinion, some of the root causes of anxiety and mental illness in our society today have to do with late capitalism and the constant pressure to be productive at all cost.

In my interviews, I have observed that my participants put a great amount of stress on themselves whether on their physical appearance, in their professional lives or even in their personal relationships.

Could you tell us a little bit about your work with the Feminist Media Studio? Who are they and what do they do?

FGP: The Feminist Media Studio was founded with the objective of creating a communal space where students, scholars and creators can exchange and work collaboratively around questions related to feminism such as gender and sexuality. The studio hosts talks and media and writing workshops.

I have participated in many of their workshops, which really helped me develop my research project. It gave me the opportunity to brainstorm with professors and students who I wouldn’t have met otherwise or had the opportunity to collaborate with.

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