TikTok Therapists Are the Mental Health Educators You Didn't Know You Needed
In November, clinical social worker Tangee Augustin signed up for TikTok hoping to spread mental health awareness and education. She had already used Facebook and Instagram but was trucking along without “too much traffic.” In an oversaturated market, it was hard to gain any real traction. With TikTok, she hoped to reach a wider audience.
“It was really just a matter of meeting people where they are,” she told The Mighty. “Because TikTok has become very big, very popular.”
Like many TikTok therapists, Augustin got her start by posting short educational videos where she’d, for example, explain the basics of generational trauma while donning a trendy leopard print hat or bob her head along to a Three 6 Mafia track while doling out conflict resolution advice. Augustin has since racked up more than 58,000 likes, a flash in the pan considering TikTok’s overwhelming user base, but a signal that there’s more than just niche appeal to mental health content on the platform.
@slaytheavailwayDrop a ???? if you #generationaltrauma #generationalhealing #therapyworks #fyp #therapistsoftiktok♬ original sound – Madifing Conde
Since the app debuted as Musical.ly in 2014, TikTok has amassed more than 700 million monthly active users, surpassing 2 billion downloads worldwide. In the United States, the monthly active user base has skyrocketed 800% over the last two and a half years, with the majority of growth occurring during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, all of the mental health professionals we spoke to joined TikTok over the last year, and that’s not a coincidence.
No matter how you swing it, the pandemic has challenged our collective mental health, but it’s hit Gen Z, TikTok’s most prevalent demographic, particularly hard. According to ABC News, a CDC study revealed that 63% of 18-to 24-year-olds experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression during the coronavirus lockdowns. A quarter of those surveyed increased their use of substances to cope and another quarter claimed they “seriously considered suicide.”
This is particularly alarming considering the fact that young people — especially young people of color — face historic barriers that prevent them from pursuing professional help. The largest deterrents include a lack of mental health knowledge and perceived social stigma and embarrassment. Beyond that, a lack of trust toward therapists and logistical hurdles like cost and availability have steered Gen Z away from therapy.
Overall, research has shown that less than two-thirds of children and adolescents with mental health problems seek treatment, and Black Gen Zers are even less likely than their white peers — but TikTok has been knocking these barriers down, or at least providing a small step ladder.
“Seeing therapists of all different walks of life having fun while giving out this information, I think it also destigmatizes that vision, or what we’ve seen on television of ‘shrinks,’” Augustin said. “I think it’s helpful for, especially young people, to see that there are some young or some older different types of clinicians out there that can meet their needs, or that look like them or that they can relate to or connect with.”
@notyouraveragethrpstWe normalize therapy and show not all therapïst are the same! #tiktoktherapist #mentalhealthtok♬ Show you what you missin – Merrickbeaumont
TikTok undoubtedly provides a sense of community, both for therapists and those who may feel alone in their struggle. Part of the reason is that unlike Instagram, which can feel overly-curated and inauthentic, TikTok is raw. It’s not uncommon to see users crying over a breakup set to the tune of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” or detailing their OCD symptoms in 60 short seconds.
Though Augustin has the smallest audience of the therapists we spoke to, even she experienced a flood of encouraging, hopeful comments on her video about leaving toxic relationships. “Needed to see this,” wrote one user. “I did it on my bday in August no regrets,” admitted another.
“I started seeing trends on my videos being like, ‘I started therapy in the past six months because of a TikTok therapist,'” Jaime Mahler, a licensed mental health counselor, told The Mighty. “It’s like a shared information space. … We’re giving them a landscape that they’ve never had access to — they’ve never had this much information right at their fingertips.”
Mahler, who has nearly 540,000 followers on TikTok, added that even with an enormous wealth of information on Google, you have to understand what you’re experiencing to find helpful information. “People don’t literally [have a] basic understanding of what anxiety feels like in their body,” Mahler said. TikTok therapists help fill that knowledge gap and give users the tools to seek more in-depth information.
Despite the enormous benefits, some therapists view TikTok as a slippery slope. It can’t replace actual therapy, and it does raise some ethical and legal concerns that must be carefully navigated.
“I feel like I’m dodging lawsuits left and right,” said Jesse Lyon, a hypnotherapist who’s racked up more than 255,000 followers on TikTok by posting videos that range from him flossing (with his hips, not his teeth) to analyzing Winnie The Pooh’s dreams. Lyons is a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida, but he’s also trained in hypnotherapy, which creates a blurry legal line.
“Because I can’t be a therapist for anyone outside the state of Florida, I took that stuff off [my TikTok],” he said. “That way, if somebody does find me, they’re not having the initial impression of me being a therapist or a counselor because once somebody knows me as a therapist or a counselor, I have to address them as a therapist or a counselor. I’m not able to pivot. And that’s a legal, ethical thing.”
Kristen, a licensed clinical social worker who’s amassed more than 270,000 followers and over 5 million likes, shares a similar sentiment. “I very much tell in my [TikTok] lives, I can’t answer personal questions. I’m not your therapist,” she told The Mighty. “I’m just very aware that I have to make sure that I’m not crossing that therapeutic relationship. Most of my videos that are mental health information or anything like that, I write that TikTok is not a replacement for medical advice or therapy.”
Nonetheless, TikTok is a rare glimmer of hope that can serve as a careful first step toward life-changing treatment or provide much-needed affirmation to those most vulnerable. The internet can feel like an endless stream of the greatest hits of other people’s lives, one where mental disorders appear scarce even though they’re the leading cause of ill health and disability in the world.
It’s easy to feel like you don’t measure up, but TikTok therapists cut through the noise and remind us that there’s always a chance for a better tomorrow. As Kristen says in one of her most viral posts, whispering to us like an old friend from a blanket on her couch, “Have you eaten today? Have you done any self-care? Maybe tomorrow we can make that a little bit of a priority.”
Header images via TikTok