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RACHEL BELLE

The risks of using mental health influencers as therapy

Oct 20, 2022, 6:23 PM | Updated: Oct 21, 2022, 8:33 am
mental health...
(Prateek Katyal/Unsplash)
(Prateek Katyal/Unsplash)

The Washington Post reports, as of August, TikTok videos with #mentalhealth in the caption have more than 43.9 billion views, according to the analytics company Sprout Social. And there are all kinds of content creators, with millions of followers, doling out mental health advice without the education or qualifications to back it up.

“I get served a lot of mental health content on Instagram and TikTok,” said Tatum Hunter, technology reporter for The Washington Post.

Hunter has written a couple of articles on the topic, including her latest piece, How to vet mental health advice on TikTok and Instagram.

“A mental health creator might just have a passion for the topic or they might have found that talking about depression and anxiety is really relatable,” Hunter said. “People relate to it. It boosts their views and their followers. It’s important to remember the incentives of social media, which are to get eyeballs on your content. When it comes to talking about our health, those incentives can be really misaligned.”

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The problem is some people use these content creators as a replacement for actual therapy. They might self-diagnose themselves with disorders they don’t have and the platforms are not reliably removing posts that spread false information.

“There are a few things you can do to validate a creator or a piece of mental health content you see on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube,” Hunter said. “One is to look at the creator’s qualifications. Somebody who is a licensed therapist or doctor, it doesn’t automatically make them a mental health expert, but it sure does help. Or at least it makes it less likely that they are spreading misinformation. I’d also caution people to beware of slippery titles like ‘coach’ or ‘expert.’ I’ll note that a lot of people have had bad experiences with licensed healthcare providers, but it’s not a reason to give up on fact-finding or to turn to people who might just be taking advantage of the fact that we’re all hanging out on an advertising app.”

Common topics of discussion are anxiety, depression, and ADHD.

“If you scroll this content long enough, you will notice these themes,” Hunter said. “One that I think is easy to talk about is narcissism. If you hang around on TikTok or Instagram, you’ve probably seen content about dealing with a narcissist or signs your partner or parents are narcissists. Clinical narcissism is real, it’s relatively rare, and it’s dangerous to diagnose other people based on content that you see on social media.”

The more you engage with these posts and creators, the more the algorithm will serve them up. And being constantly bombarded by mental health messages can overexpose someone to these topics.

“Mental illness is not an identity and it’s not a static state,” said Hunter. “You can get better and the community should provide support and not just reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with you.”

Hunter understands the draw to these content creators. Young people were very isolated during the pandemic, a lot of people don’t have access to mental health care, or the insurance to pay for it, and it’s an easy way to connect with people feeling the same way that you do.

“I can’t walk into the middle of the street in San Francisco and yell, ‘I suffer from anxiety!’ and have anyone respond to me or make friendships,” said Hunter. “So social media does help you feel less alone and that also comes with risks.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.” Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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The risks of using mental health influencers as therapy