Selfies and mental illness: A growing connection

According to Dr. David Veal, selfies are not as harmless as they seem. Veal, along with other physicians and psychologists, warns that people who take…

Don’t get into the habit of taking selfies. (Shutterstock)

According to Dr. David Veal, selfies are not as harmless as they seem.

Veal, along with other physicians and psychologists, warns that people who take a lot of self-portraits—“selfies”—with their phones or other mobile devices are at increased risk of various types of mental illness, including body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and others.

The revelation that a person can be addicted to selfies comes on the cusp of doctors announcing that social media addiction is an illness.

Narcissism and self-obsession

One of Veal’s patients, Danny Bowman, used to spend up to 10 hours a day taking selfies.

Bowman was diagnosed with OCD, body dysmorphic disorder and technology addiction. After an attempt at suicide, which Bowman said was triggered by his inability to take the “perfect” selfie, the 19-year-old was taken to London’s Maudsley Hospital for rehabilitation.

According to International Business Times’ report, Bowman is not unique, as Veal explains: “Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with Body Dysmorphic Disorder since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take selfies.”

It might not be surprising, given selfies’ obvious connection to how we look. However, avoiding a mental illness like body dysmorphic disorder or OCD requires self-control and the ability to set the phone down. That can be especially hard for teenagers who are still developing cognitively and who seek peer approval. Clinical psychologist Lucie Hemmen told Social Times that “because teenagers are often driven by insecurity to construct a desirable persona, they are particularly vulnerable to the negative side of self-portraiture.”

Similarly, Dr. Pamela Rutledge argued in Psychology Today that indulging in selfies may be indicative of low self-esteem or attention-seeking behavior. If teens—or adults—are allowed to continue taking selfies unchecked, it may spur a more serious mental illness. Low self-esteem, narcissism, and depression have already been linked to high social media use, such as that of Facebook and Twitter.


Recovering from technology addiction, whether related to selfies or otherwise, often involves gradually lengthening the period of time during which a person is separated from the device or platform in question.

For Bowman, that meant having his iPhone taken away for 10-minute intervals, to start, and then slowly increasing those intervals to 30 minutes and eventually an hour. Bowman reported that the treatment was “excruciating” but necessary.

Patients with OCD and other compulsive behavior are also treated by way of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps them to recognize the roots of their behavior. Once a patient can see those causes, he or she is better able to adjust triggers and behavior accordingly.

Because body dysmorphic disorder stems from a compulsion with one’s appearance, CBT is often used to help patients with this condition. According to the Mayo Clinic, patients with BDD can use therapy to build healthy behaviors and manage compulsive urges. Some patients may also benefit from medications, though there is no specific drug prescribed for BDD.

Are you part of the selfie trend?

Want to be a part of the selfie trend? Here are some tips and apps that can help you achieve the perfect selfie. (Shutterstock)

How many selfies is too many?

One of the difficulties in diagnosing technology addiction of any sort, including selfie addiction, is that using our phones day in and day out has become the norm.

However, it’s important to recognize when phone use goes beyond what’s healthy. There are a few signs that may point to either selfie addiction or a compulsion such as body dysmorphic disorder, as explained by the Mayo Clinic. Those include:

  • The inability to leave a phone or other mobile device unattended when engaging in social activities
  • Extreme preoccupation with one’s looks or frequent examination of oneself in front of the mirror
  • A heightened focus on one part of the body, which the person may see as “flawed”
  • Taking so many selfies that it gets in the way of one’s daily activities

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in helping those who may have a compulsive disorder as a result of too many selfies is recognizing that there’s a legitimate problem with all of those self-portraits. As public awareness increases, doctors and health professionals hope that people will recognize the danger of mental illness associated with selfies and will seek help.