The Brain Diaries of Stephanie Coronado-Montoya: countering fake news about substance use and mental health on Instagram


Ever wandered around on social networks looking for sound information about health and cannabis? Some outstanding (and false) health claims circulate there. For example, cannabidiol, known as CBD, is often presented as the perfect remedy to help you with any sleep, anxiety or depression issues. But science has yet to conclude this.

To set the record straight, Stephanie Coronado-Montoya, a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Didier Jutras-Aswad’s lab at the CHUM research centre, has decided to weigh in on the conversation, one post at a time through her science Instagram account, The Brain Diaries.

There, she regularly publishes lay audience formatted news on substance use and mental health issues, on her journey as a PhD student researcher, and on her life as a female Hispanic scientist.

The young researcher has recently been awarded a $5,000 grant from the Fonds de recherche du Québec for their Dialogue competition, a science communication initiative to encourage scientists to communicate and interact with the general public.
 

Q. How did you come up with the idea of The Brain Diaries?

A. I’ve studied for years in psychology and in psychiatry, and I’ve always liked sharing all of the knowledge that I had with the people around me.

When I specialized as a cannabis researcher, I noticed through the conversation I had in my entourage that there were big gaps in knowledge between what I knew as a researcher and what people knew from what they heard or read.

I wanted to have a platform that allowed me to have a wider impact and to share my knowledge in a way that could empower others. A few people had pushed me towards starting Instagram and TikTok accounts.

Even if I’m not a person who likes to be in the spotlight, I could see the potential in using social media channels. So I decided to give it a try.

Q. Are you concerned that growing misinformation about cannabis shared on social media platforms may generate public health problems?

A. Yes, absolutely. Since cannabis for therapeutic and recreational use is legal in Canada and some U.S. states, misinformation on substance use is on the rise.

I remember going to downtown Miami, where CBD is not criminalized. There, I saw so many shops promoting smoothies to help with relaxation and anxiety.

I think it becomes a real health problem when people promote its supposed—but not established—benefits to others who are more vulnerable like persons with psychotic or neurological disorders. Misinforming people could potentially be dangerous.

This is why I started to post on Instagram. It seemed to me that there was a need for information that was much greater than my hate for selfies.

As scientists, I truly think we have to make our voices heard to counter this misinformation.

Q. What would you like to achieve by having your voice heard on Instagram as a scientist interested in substance use and mental health?

A. My top priority is to reach as many people as possible with important health information, and to empower them with knowledge that can actually help them in their daily lives.

Besides that, I also want to expose the world a little bit to the research process, because I think there’s still a big divide between scientists and the general public.

Maybe if people understood the scientific process more, they would give more credit to science-based information.

Q. By sharing your stories as a female Hispanic scientist, do you see yourself as a scientific role model who can inspire others to make their experience known?

A. Growing up in Florida as a young Latina girl, I did not know many people that were minorities or women working in the science field.

For sure, seeing more minorities or women is something that can really help kids, teenagers or young adults to envision themselves in similar positions. So if I can add to that diversity of faces, I’d be happy.

Above all, I would like to contribute to increasing the visibility of minorities or women. This is something that is close to my heart.

It would also be really cool if my platform opens people’s eyes to all of the faces of science and research. For example, a scientist can be a mom too, or a Hispanic in a French-speaking university in Canada.

I think it’s important to increase the visibility of diverse models. At the CHUM research centre, for instance, I see a lot of diversity, which is wonderful. But other people in other areas don’t see that diversity. I hope my account helps to promote not just science and research, but diverse role models.

Q. Do you have a message for researchers who are hesitant to engage in online science communication?

A. I would encourage everyone to do it even if it is out of one’s comfort zone.

On social media, there are so many people that don’t necessarily have the credentials or the expertise to talk about specific health issues, but do so anyways. This is where misinformation comes from.

We need more scientists to join the conversation and to translate their research into real talk to reach the general public.

And don’t be scared of competition: in my experience, there are simply not enough people communicating science-based facts to a lay audience on such important health topics.


Don’t miss Stephanie’s upcoming Instagram posts, subscribe to The Brain Diaries.