On top of the roughly one billion people with a serious mental disorder, a least as many people suffer from milder stress symptoms, anxieties or melancholy. Offering all these people professional help is impossible, Llewellyn van Zyl explains. “Not only is it very expensive, but there simply isn’t enough capacity; even in the Netherlands people have to wait months for an appointment with a psychologist.” However, he believes that certain self-help methods can make a difference to the lives of many people with mental problems.
That is why the psychologist wants to compile a list of proven self-help methods, he says. “The intention is to make an online system with that, which will automatically select the most appropriate therapy for you, based on your mental problems.” As part of this long-term project, he investigated the suggestion that you can use photographs to make you aware of the things that give meaning to your life.
Because the photographs you make say a lot about the things that matter to you and that make you happy. “Meaningful things that make us feel good happen every day, but it turns out that many people don’t realize why exactly these things are positive. Photographs can help them gain insight into that.”
In the study Van Zyl conducted with a few colleagues, test subjects posted a photograph on Instagram every evening for a week. “They had to write down three reasons why that photograph gave them a positive feeling. We and the other test subjects could give feedback on that, as is usual on Instagram. My two colleagues and I divided the week in eight-hour shifts, so that we could always respond within a few minutes.”
After one week, the test subjects had a collage of seven photographs and more insight into the themes that were meaningful to them. That insight allows the participants to take control of their lives in a more conscious way, the researchers argue. “If it turns out, for example, that you feel happy when you spend time with your family, or when you spend time alone in nature, you can act accordingly.” And this in turn has to lead to less feelings of melancholy, stress and anxiety.
“We measured the effects immediately after the intervention, and again after three months and a year,” Van Zyl says. “People felt much better immediately after when you look at things like melancholy, stress, anxiety, gratitude and a feeling of a joy of life. But that was to be expected; we know that practically every form of intervention has short-term positive effects.” However, the psychologist was positively surprised to learn that people still felt a part of those effects after three months and a year even. “That’s quite special for such a low-threshold form of self-help.”
Van Zyl too is aware that social media such as Instagram have a questionable reputation. “But they won’t go away, and it’s great that you can use them in this way. Anyone who feels the need can start with this method right away. All you need is an account on a social platform and preferably a few connections who can respond. It’s free, easy, and has now been proven to be effective. I thought that this is an important message worth sharing in these difficult times of corona.”