Older teens and young adults spend a lot of time on social media. And the messages they encounter there could be key to helping or hurting those who struggle with anxiety and depression. Even subtle messages could make a difference, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Researchers from Ohio State University found that college students approached managing their depression and anxiety differently depending on whether the messages they saw had a “growth mindset” or a “fixed mindset.” A growth mindset creates optimism because it suggests mental health can get better with effort or treatment or by taking proactive steps. The condition is not set in stone.

A fixed mindset suggests that being set in stone is the reality. What is simply is, and would be difficult to change. So if you have anxiety and depression, that’s just the way things are.

Because young adults spend so much time on social media — the 322 undergraduate students who participated in the study said they used social media one to three hours a day — the messages they encounter regarding mental health there can be life-giving or sapping.

“These relatively subtle messages may be influencing whether they believe they have any possibility of working through their depression and anxiety and getting better,” Whitney Whitted, study lead author and a doctoral student at Ohio State University, said in a written statement.

Finding ways to tackle mental health is tremendously important, experts agree. The National Institute of Mental Health believes as many as 19.1% of all adults have anxiety.

Among college students, numbers are startling. In an annual survey of 96,000 U.S. students on 133 college campuses during the 2021-22 academic year, 44% had symptoms of depression, 37% said they had anxiety and 15% said they have seriously contemplated suicide. That was the highest share in the 15-year history of the Healthy Minds survey.

As Jean Twenge, author of the books “Generations” and “iGen,” wrote this week on her Substack, young adults are now more likely to die by suicide than are middle-aged adults, which is a significant change in a longstanding trend. Mental health is a major challenge for young people.

Influential messages

In the study, participants saw a series of messages about mental health on the social media site X. Each was randomly assigned to view tweets about mental health through the lens of a growth mindset, a fixed mindset or the control, in which tweets said nothing about mental health.

For the growth mindset, the tweets focused on how fluid mental health can be and one’s ability to take control of mental health. For example, one message was “I got this” on a meme that said “telling those anxious thoughts who’s really in control.”

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An example of a fixed mindset message was a tweet that read, “I can’t wait for my seasonal depression to be over so that I can get back to my regular depression.”

After they read the tweets, the undergrads were surveyed about how long depression and anxiety normally last and if they will ever go away, as well as about the effectiveness of treatment for depression and anxiety and whether study subjects thought they could take control of their own mental health and recover or relieve their symptoms.

Participants who read the growth mindset messages were more likely to believe that the two conditions are not necessarily permanent and there are things they could do to help themselves. Those with the fixed mindset tweet “had less optimistic views about the permanence of mental illness and the ability of people to treat it,” the news release said.

Even such a short intervention mattered, according to Jennifer Cheavens, a professor of psychology at the university and a study co-author. “It was just a few minutes of people reading these tweets with small variation in how the messages about mental illness were framed,” she said. “But it made a difference in what these participants reported they believed.”

Interactive graphic for steps when dealing with anxiety

“Social media communication that characterizes psychopathology from a growth mindset perspective may be a viable intervention for improving beliefs around mental health self-efficacy and the malleable nature of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety. Clinicians may be able to use social media platforms to promote functional beliefs around mental illness,” the researchers concluded.

The researchers noted they could not say how long the changes would last. But they are hopeful that growth-mindset social media messages will encourage people with depression or anxiety to seek help. And it could be a boon to those who are in therapy, to bolster their confidence that they will get better.

“We want our clients to put in the hard work necessary to overcome their problems, but they have to believe it is possible,” Cheavens said. “This study suggests there may be ways to give them a boost, to help persuade them that working hard in therapy can pay off in the end.”

“It is important that the messages they receive accurately reflect what we know about mental illness, especially the fact that it is treatable,” Whitted said.

Study co-authors include Matthew Southward, of the University of Kentucky; Kristen Howard, of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center/Medical College of Wisconsin; Samantha Wick, of Miami University; and Daniel Strunk, of Ohio State.