By Fani Mari
TikTok has taken over our lives since early 2020, with over 1 billion active users now on the platform. Famous for its dancing, challenges, makeup videos and pranks, its short-form, attention-grabbing videos offer users an escape from a reality that hasn’t been so pleasant as of late. If you’re active on TikTok, then you know how easy it is to lose yourself for a couple of hours without even realizing it.
But it’s not all carefree content. On the other end of the spectrum, people use the platform to share heavy, traumatic, and heartfelt personal videos relating to their mental health; from stories of abuse to loss and self-harm. While some of this sharing can be beneficial by normalizing mental health conversations, the lack of content warnings can sometimes do more harm than good. On top of this, there are millions of self-described mental health experts on the app whose unregulated advice can be misleading and damaging, especially to vulnerable children and teens aged 10-19, who comprise over 30% of TikTok’s users.
However, like most things, whether TikTok is good for our collective mental health is not black and white. We spoke to three experts in the space, below, to weigh the pros and cons.
There are over 290 million views under #TherapyTikTok, a sign that talking about therapy has lost some of its stigma. Lindsay Fleming, a licensed therapist (LPC) who’s active on the platform, says that the biggest positive of TikTok is that people who are struggling have found a community and a place to share their experiences with therapy. It also provides education on the many different types of therapy that often go unexplored, she says.
On top of that, it shows us that therapists are people just like the rest of us, moving away from the silent nodding, never-smiles characters that are often portrayed on TV. Seeing friendly therapists on TikTok helps disrupt this image. “When appropriate, bringing ourselves into our practice as flawed human beings can be incredibly impactful. TikTok allows therapists to normalize that we are not a blank slate and gives people a sense of our personality, humor, and skillset,” says Mary Tate, LCSW, the founder of Tate Psychotherapy.
Given that therapy sessions range from $100-$400, therapy is not something that everyone can afford. The beauty of TikTok is that it’s accessible to a wider range of people, with no payment needed. “TikTok provides access to information and to what different diagnoses involve,” Fleming says, noting that this is especially valuable for underprivileged teens who often need therapy the most but have the least amount of access to it.
When watching clips from reputable experts, teens can better understand their symptoms and get tips on how to manage them. It can also clear up confusion around different diagnoses, like the difference between clinical anxiety and simply feeling stressed.
Feeling like we’re not alone and that we have people who understand us is a vital part of the mental health journey. On TikTok, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will find people who have gone through something similar to you. This sense of community can destigmatize mental health issues and also help you better understand your situation. “Especially for people who live in areas that aren't as accepting of their gender or their sexuality, TikTok can provide them with a community who they can really relate to,” Fleming notes.
Destigmatizes mental health issues
Just as TikTok normalizes therapy, it also helps to decrease the stigma surrounding mental health issues. “There have been long held negative stigmas about mental health issues where people may be afraid of being judged or viewed negatively,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Ashlyne Mullen. But in providing a platform for people to talk about these things openly, TikTok is helping to change that narrative. “[TikTok is a] space where people talk about the good, bad and sometimes ugly parts of suffering with mental health symptoms. The more that these are discussed and exposed the better chance there is that stigma decreases,” agrees Tate.
As a result of this openness, people are also being introduced to new coping skills to help them navigate things like anxiety and depression, says Dr. Mullen. Videos teaching meditation and deep breathing techniques, as well as art-related skills (like drawing, origami, crocheting), offer an outlet for people who are feeling down or stressed.
While self-diagnosing can prompt some people to seek professional help, doing it from a TikTok video can also be really dangerous. “Users are providing colloquial advice for disorders such as PTSD, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder,” says Dr. Mullen. “People may not seek treatment because they believe the information [they’re getting on TikTok] is enough.” Looking through videos like “5 signs you might have depression” and believing that’s info to make a diagnosis is the main issue. Mental health diagnoses are very individual and complicated and can only be confirmed by professionals, who will get to know you, your symptoms and history in depth. Jumping to conclusions and self-diagnosing because of a video you’ve seen online is just as dangerous as attempting to diagnose physical health issues via WebMD.
One of the most dangerous aspects of TikTok is that anyone with an internet connection can pretend to be an expert. People can influence others simply because of their large followings and take advantage of vulnerable people in the process. “TikTok is filled with people who are providing advice that don’t have the qualifications or background to do so. I think many are providing advice from personal experience, which does not translate for everyone,” says Dr. Mullen. It can also confuse people into thinking they have a diagnosis, when they don’t. “We all get anxious sometimes, but to have a diagnosed anxiety disorder looks different than someone who's anxious,” Fleming says.
Sadly suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10 to 19 year olds and videos that promote self-harm, trauma, personal stories of abuse and more, are often seen on TikTok. Though they can be helpful, they can also re-traumatize you. “Essentially it can trigger people to re-experience their own trauma, and without the proper tools provided, someone may be unable to deal with these issues on their own,” Dr. Mullen says. Similarly, we can get secondhand trauma from watching something dramatic over and over again.
If you feel like sharing a mental health issue you have/have had, Tate advises to be careful of the following; “Always give a disclaimer that this is your own personal experience and provide trigger warnings (TW) if posting about sensitive topics. We should not support content that exploits those struggling with mental health in any capacity.”
It can be difficult to express our feelings and talk about our mental health, which is why open conversations on TikTok can feel like such a bright light. To help counteract this reality in the long term, though, we should be educating people on mental health from a young age. Fleming, who specializes in teen mental health, believes children should be taught about mental health and how to express their feelings in school starting at 5-years-old. We learn about our physical health so why not our mental health, too?
When we do turn to platforms like TikTok, it’s important to check the sources and legitimacy of the “experts” before we take their advice. You can look up whether or not therapists are actually licensed via the APA Psychologist Locator or follow this state-by-state guide. If you find a piece of information interesting, do further research via reputable sources like scientific studies (rather than Wikipedia) to learn more about it and see if there’s solid support behind it.
“Mental health professionals can have different opinions and beliefs, too,” Tate says. Dr. Mullen advises that experts whose advice you follow should have a PsyD or Ph.D. (doctorates in clinical or counseling psychology) or be licensed psychotherapists (with degrees like LCSW, LICSW, LMHC, LMFT, LCAT, LP, LMSW). Ultimately, though, the experts agree that TikTok shouldn’t be the first place you go for mental health advice. As Tate put it: “Mental health is not so black and white, and we work in a world of gray that cannot be explored in a 15-60 second video.”
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