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Therapy TikToks Are Spiking in Popularity – but Are They Helpful, or Harmful?

Michele Theil
·10-min read
Photo credit: Tim Robberts - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Robberts - Getty Images

The pandemic, in all of its loss, fear and isolation, poured petrol onto a pre-existing mental health crisis. According to a report by charity Mind, 'More than half of adults and over two thirds of young people said that their mental health has gotten worse during the period of lockdown restrictions, from early April to mid-May.'

The restrictions on seeing people you depend on for support and worries about the health of family and friends were reported as driving poor mental health, while sheer boredom is also a big problem for young people. Many of those who try to access support are unable to do so, with feeling uncomfortable using phone or video call technology being a barrier cited by Mind. Long NHS waiting lists for talking therapy and the cost of seeing a private therapist are pre-existing problems that have likely exacerbated the issue.

This has coincided with a sharp uptick on time spent on phones and laptops. During April 2020, UK adults spent a daily average of four hours and two minutes online, up from just under three and a half hours in September 2019, per an OFCOM report. It's in this moment that a growing TikTok genre – mental heath advice, sometimes delivered by qualified professionals and sometimes not – has boomed.

Here, writer Michele Theil digs into it.

A few months ago, on a cold, Sunday night in lockdown 3, I had a major argument with my mum. This is not an unusual event – she and I have a complicated relationship. On the verge of tears, and feeling there was no one I could turn to, I opened up the TikTok app on my phone and began scrolling into its blue-lit chasm.

Soon, searching for answers to the endless anger and misunderstanding, I stumbled across a video about narcissistic mothers. In the clip, which has over 12,000 views, Bee Jackson (@motherwoundmentor) , who describes herself as an 'Author, speaker, coach, and mentor to adult daughters of narcissistic mothers,' listed out the traits that might evidence that your mother is a narcissist.

Watching this triggered two things. Firstly, it felt like a lightbulb went off in my head, as I connected the dots between what Jackson was saying and my perception of my experience. Secondly, in a state of overwhelm at this information, I had a panic attack. Trying to calm myself down, I found another video, which gave me an anxiety relief technique.

If you need help with your mental health, call the Mind infoline on 0300 123 3393. If you need urgent help, call your local NHS urgent mental health helpline

This TikTok, from @anxietyreliefguy, a hypnotist, instructed me to relax my jaw, think of a relaxing colour and then to imagine sending that colour all throughout my body. It worked.

Since that day, I’ve revisited these accounts a number of times in order to try to figure out more about my relationships, as well as to find advice on soothing anxious moments. I am far from alone in finding solace in mental health and neurodivergency content on the app.

How many people are watching therapy TikToks?

The hashtag #ADHD has 2.7 billion views while #depressed and #anxiety has combined views reaching at least five billion. The hashtag #therapy, meanwhile, has 2.3 billion views. There are countless videos that start off with statements like 'Signs you have high-functioning anxiety' or 'If you’ve put five fingers down in response to this, you might have depression'. Accounts like TikTok Counselling and therapists like The Truth Doctor and Micheline Maalouf as well as psychologist Dr Julie Smith, have at least one million followers each.

Some of these videos give fairly simple advice, such as grounding or breathing techniques for anxiety-induced panic. Others, though, delve into more complex subjects by explaining how certain traumatic events can lead to diagnosable depression or anxiety – as well as telling them that perhaps not wanting to clean your room is, in fact, a sign of ADHD. Clearly, some people are finding something helpful in this sort of speedy, Internet-era friendly advice. But, when it comes to your – and my – health, is seeking help via a 60-second video a good idea?

Frances, 22, has recently been diagnosed with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by her GP, after a lengthy process. Prior to her diagnosis, she watched endless videos on TikTok discussing the condition, as well as mental health issues. While she thought that ADHD may explain a lot about how she moves through life, seeing others discuss certain symptoms of the condition helped to reinforce the idea and also gave her a chance to ascribe the condition to things that she thought were just 'laziness' or 'inattention'.

She hasn’t yet received access to medication to help her with her ADHD, and while she waits, she has turned to TikTok to find out more about the diagnosis and how it affects her.

Jennifer*, 22, similarly didn’t ‘self-diagnose’ using TikTok, but some information she found on the app gave her a way to cope with her experiences of what she believes to be depression and anxiety – she does not have a formal diagnosis – in the absence of mental health treatment.

She found the videos, which featured therapists, as well as non-qualified people who deal with the conditions themselves, while scrolling.

She says: 'The videos gave me ways of thinking differently about certain situations in my life and coping with those feelings of inadequacy, panic, and sadness better.'

Jennifer has tried to get mental health treatment on the NHS in the past, but says that she did not qualify for free counselling because her situation wasn’t dire enough. Getting private therapy wasn’t an option for her because of the expense, so 'TikTok has been a great stand-in while I work out my next steps in terms of accessing real-life mental health care that is affordable and useful.'

Why are people watching so many therapy TikToks?

The struggle of accessing IRL mental health care due to long wait lists and exorbitant pricing is not limited to Jennifer and Frances. Mental health charity Mind’s report on accessing talking therapies found that one in ten people have been waiting over a year to receive treatment, and over half have been waiting over three months for their treatment to begin. Seeking private treatment is much faster, but out of reach for many. A weekly therapy session can cost you between £45 and £100, depending on who it is and where you go.

The complexity and importance of mental health and neurodivergence can't really be underestimated. It's why the need for qualified professionals is so pressing – as well as why this trend of seeking help through social media is, to some experts, worrying.

Psychotherapist Sam Nabil, owner of Naya Clinics, is not on the app, but is wary of this trend of short videos designed to provide mental health advice. He explains that he would 'actively discourage people' from using them in place of qualified mental health treatment.

Nabil argues that there is a danger to people potentially self-diagnosing without personalised support and treatment plans of how to manage a condition. He says: 'It’s very similar to self-diagnosing yourself with a physical condition and not going to a doctor for help, particularly if the diagnosis is wrong, because it could lead to a plethora of issues – and even fatal complications – if someone is watching videos [that don't match] what’s going on in their specific lives or how to help them.'

'I understand that people are looking for relief and answers to an affliction. My issue isn’t that people are seeking knowledge about these conditions but that they are then making conclusions using TikTok, when they may not have the whole picture.'

Millie, 22, has ADHD and believes that TikTok videos regarding the conditon could be helpful for people to to 'get a wider perspective on mental health and neurodivergence.' But, she thinks there is a danger of TikTok creators 'pathologising' normal behaviour – for example, sometimes acting in a selfish way or lying – and attributing them to a diagnosed mental health condition or disability.

'A lot of these videos take random things and say "this means you have ADHD", which is simply not true, because a lot of ADHD symptoms can present in people who do not have the condition. I think it’s a form of misinformation and it can be very harmful to spread this among the younger demographics that use TikTok,' she says.

Clinical psychologist Dr Kirren Schnack has similar reservations about some of the therapeutic advice being given out, particularly that dispensed by those who are not qualified to do so. But, she comes at it from an insider perspective, having a TikTok account herself with over 70,000 followers. Here, she and giving her expertise on things including gaslighting, panic attacks, health anxiety and abandonment issues.

Dr Schnack is concerned by the numerous unqualified people 'who call themselves an ADHD coach or a wellness coach,' and provide advice that isn’t necessarily correct and that they are not in a position to dispense.

She thinks there is a responsibility for such indiviuals to be very clear that they are not mental health professionals or qualified psychologists or therapists when making videos to ensure that people watching them are not "duped" into believing they have a diagnosis when it may not be true. Dr Schnack emphaises the fact that 'only a doctor or a professional that is qualified that has seen you and examined you can diagnose you', and that any videos that may seem diagnostic should not be used for that purpose.

She believes that people are turning to the app in response to the poor mental health provision in the UK, as well as the fact that treatment, can often be too generalised to work for some people.

She suggests that the pandemic is a major factor in the popularity of these videos, with many of us inside using social media more than ever, as well as the increase of mental health struggles as a result of being locked inside without friends or family for so long. 'More and more people are going to want to access mental health care now, but it can be expensive and inaccessible for a lot of people, and often what I hear is that people will access treatment and it’s too generalised to work for their specific issues. So they don’t go back and would rather use TikTok to get help, instead.'

She recommends ensuring that the videos people watch are made by qualified professionals and, even then, not to rely solely on their information. (Choose videos that come from a qualified professional, such as a clinical psychologist, and check if a therapist is registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, via their register.)

So, where does that leave us? My take is this: Two things are true at once. People are finding a community on TikTok of like-minded people and are getting support from them at a time when mental health provision in the UK is continually being undermined. Self-diagnosis via social media is, obviously, a potentiall dangerous problem. One thing is for certain: amid a global pandemic and the current political climate, the demand for these videos likely won’t be going away – and there’s plenty of supply to go around.

Where to find help for your mental health

If you're struggling with your mental health and need help, try these resources:

  • Call the Mind infoline, for signposting on where to seek help: 0300 123 3393

  • Go to your GP, and explain your symptoms - they can offer you medical help

  • You can refer yourself for an online NHS therapy programmes nhs.uk/service-search

  • If you just want to talk to someone, call the Samaritans 116 123

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