TikTok mental health content has exploded. But is it therapy?
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In a video last week captioned “Why Mental Health TikTok is Powerful,” therapist Jaime Mahler shares a user’s striking comment: “10 years of therapy and what I needed to hear I heard on TikTok. And it has changed the entire way I process my past and view myself now.”
Mental health content has exploded on the immensely popular social media platform. The hashtag #mentalhealth has 15.3 billion views and #therapistsoftiktok has 318 million. Therapist creators say the pandemic likely accelerated the space’s evolution, but they credit its existence to the broader de-stigmatization of mental health issues as well as the app’s younger users who are more comfortable not only disclosing but also publicly processing everything from childhood trauma to relationship abuse.
TikTok is giving people a mental health education they never had before.
“We have a collection of things going on in mental health TikTok,” said Mahler, who has a private practice in New York and can be found @recollectedself. “We have the advocates that are showing up, sharing, reducing stigma on medication, reducing stigma on certain types of illnesses. Then we also have therapists on the app explaining things in unique ways, creating visuals or showing the application of how something would show up in someone’s life. Then we have real people’s voices, with their faces, allowing them to share authentic parts of who they are.”
All of this, she said, contributes to making it a space where people can access language to help them analyze their partners, their parents, their pasts and especially themselves.
But therapists on the app are emphatic that TikTok is not a substitute for therapy. Mental health TikTok, they say, is where people can build foundational knowledge, feel validated, see themselves in the experiences of others. It is not a replacement for therapeutic care.
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For people who aren’t on the app, TikTok often escapes description. It’s still widely misunderstood by non-users as a video app that features kids dancing. But Tristan Collazo, a licensed resident in counseling who practices in Virginia and can be found @risethriverepeat, calls it a “universe,” and any user can decide what they want that universe to look like. There can be dancing, or cooking, or comedy, or therapy tips, or dancing and therapy tips (there’s a lot of that).
The explosion of mental health content on the app, creators say, is as much a reflection of what’s going on for people outside the app as it is a commentary on the app itself.
“We are in a place culturally where we know it’s OK to … openly share some of the wounds that we carry into our everyday life,” Mahler said.
TikTok’s user base skews young. Many don’t ascribe to the belief held by many of their parents and grandparents that emotional pain is better endured than processed. Mahler said this is no way to thrive, and the app’s power is in showing people they can live another way.
“We are empowering people to know that treating and taking care of your mental health is vital,” she said. “In order to thrive … we have to create a foundational understanding of who we are, of where we want to be.”
Another aspect of TikTok’s influence in the mental health space is that its algorithm allows it to reach audiences who may not even be considering therapy, whether because of a lack of knowledge or introspection, cultural stigma or barriers to access. It offers people the sense that whatever they’re dealing with, they’re not alone.
Scrolling through TikTok at 11 p.m., a single mother may come across a video that speaks directly to the toxic co-parenting relationship she has with her ex. A Black woman struggling to find the right therapist may discover a video outlining what depression can look like in Black people. An LGBTQ child trying to come out to their parents may find strength and solidarity in the more than 18 million videos of other people doing the same.
“There is a space in there for everyone,” said Shani Tran, a licensed clinical counselor in Minneapolis also known as @theshaniproject. “You have therapists on there that are Muslims, you have therapists on there that are queer. You have therapists on there that are men, women, non-binary. There is literally a therapist on there that you can see yourself in who will validate you, who will give that safe space to you.”
#TherapyTikTok makes psychological concepts accessible
The beauty of mental health TikTok lies in its accessibility. Some of the most successful creators take esoteric psychological concepts and role-play to show viewers how that manifests in real life. It’s much easier to show someone what an attachment disorder looks and sounds like than it is to rattle off a list of symptoms.
Creators also help users develop more robust language around mental health. It’s one thing to think your mother-in-law is difficult, it’s another to be able to say she may have a narcissistic personality disorder.
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“Maybe someone in your life has an issue and you don’t have the language,” Mahler said. “You’re not able to explain what’s happening to you, you just know it hurts. Now you have the words, you now have the identifier. And some people are like, ‘Oh my God, my mind just got blown. I never made that connection.'”
Another reason for the content’s resonance, Collazo said, is that therapists are more relatable on the app than in real life. Since they’re sharing information and not treating patients, many therapists on the app feel they can drop the barrier that normally exists between them and their patients, which some mental health professionals argue should be more porous anyway.
“When I went to therapy when I was younger, I would just sit across from the therapist and think that person was perfect and had their lives together, never went through anything,” Collazo said. “TikTok humanizes us.”
Collazo made a video last month telling his followers that he has experienced trauma, poverty, racism and divorce. He recently created a video for the “Talk To Your Younger Self TikTok Trend” where he told his 4-year-old self that his father’s abuse would stop, that he would grow up to become a therapist, that he would break the cycle of abuse. That he would become a good dad.
TikTok does not equal therapy
The goal of therapist creators is to increase people’s exposure to mental health concepts. But many therapists on TikTok are explicit in their bios that TikTok does not equal therapy.
Their intention is to increase people’s foundational understanding of mental health, and if someone is in emotional turmoil or struggling, to encourage them to seek care. Therapists on the app are offering snippets, tastes of concepts and overviews of diagnoses. It may be illuminating, but it is not enough.
“TikTok can’t be therapy because therapy involves individualized care,” Mahler said. “The therapist creates the entire treatment plan around the client as an individual. It also is held to ethical standards and confidentiality in an interpersonal exchange.”
On TikTok, users are consuming information. There is no individualization and no confidentiality. Mahler said when she posts on the app she looks at herself as an educator that happens to be a therapist.
She also cautions users to be discerning about the mental health content they consume, to ask themselves: “Does this person have education and credentials to provide me with this information? Might this information be bias or anecdotal?”
Tran said when someone says they decided to seek therapy because of engaging with her platform, that is the ultimate success. Through the app, she said, people are now exposed to the different forms of therapy that exist, and even to what healing can look like with the right therapist. The app is also full of resources to help people find affordable and quality care.
“I know for my platform, I’m a Black woman who’s a therapist and a lot of the supporters on my page say, ‘Wow! I feel seen in your work. I can show up and feel like someone looks like me and talks about issues without me having to explain it,'” she said. “I think what it’s really doing for people is giving them a safe place to be able to explore and to maybe one day decide, ‘OK, therapy might just be for me.'”