What to Know About Using TikTok as a Mental Health Resource

  • TikTok has become a platform for thousands of healthcare professionals, including psychiatrists, therapists, and mental health advocates.
  • They use the app’s widespread reach to talk to audiences about everything from depression to ADHD.
  • In 2020 52.9 million Americans lived with mental illness. That’s nearly one in five adults.

TikTok, the social media app known for its short-form videos, has been one of the most popular social media platforms in the United States since 2018.

But it was during the pandemic that TikTok skyrocketed to superstardom, with a reported 850 million downloads worldwide during 2020.

TikTok has now become a platform for thousands of healthcare professionals, including psychiatrists, therapists, and mental health advocates, who use the app’s widespread reach to talk to audiences about everything from depression to ADHD.

In 2020 52.9 million Americans lived with mental illness. That’s nearly one in five adults.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, any mental illness (AMI) is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. It can range from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe.

Still, with such a high percentage of people living with mental health issues, there are many barriers to seeking and obtaining mental health for Americans. A 2021 study sampled 50,103 adults, of which 95.6% reported at least one barrier to healthcare access. Some of the barriers reported included approachability, meaning not having a place that one usually goes to when they are sick or need advice; availability, meaning lack of ability to get an appointment or find an open office; and affordability, meaning cost per session.

Because of these barriers, only about half of Americans who live with mental health issues receive mental health services.

According to Pew Research, 85 percent of Americans own a smartphone. There has never been more access to information than there has been right now, including access to apps like TikTok and the content shared on its platform. Because of this widespread accessibility and the fact that mental health illness has increased so dramatically over the course of the pandemic, it’s not a surprise why experts and advocates have taken to TikTok to amplify information on how best to address mental health.

“A clear benefit is accessibility of information — TikTok is a free service that anyone with internet access can utilize,” said Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, a psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

Lindsay Fleming, a licensed therapist, is one particular mental health expert who has harnessed TikTok to reach a wide audience. She had been leading a middle school girls group but had to cancel the group sessions because of COVID-19.

“Some of the participants reached out about how they missed the group, so I created a TikTok to help support my community, and one of my videos went viral,” she said. “Then I started to see the impact the videos I created had on others. Many people were struggling, but connecting with TikTok helped them feel less alone and find the courage to ask for help not only from my videos but many other mental health advocates and therapists on TikTok.”

Fleming connects with people on TikTok and builds a community through her videos that focus on the nuances of therapy. She also hosts weekly “lives” (or live sessions) where she does a check-in and answers questions that her community may have. Over time, her account has grown to reach more than half a million followers — a testament to how many people out there are looking for a way to connect.

“We often talk about the importance of therapy, but also what a therapy session actually looks like. We talk about the funny, relatable, and bigger helpful moments in therapy.”

As with anything else on the internet, verification is the number one drawback to using TikTok, or any social media, for something as important as mental health.

Who are the professionals on the other side of the screen, and are they who they say they are? Just as important, is the advice they give trusted and clinically proven? Mental health is not something to be taken lightly or flippantly, and just because someone may have a platform to share their advice does not necessarily mean that it is expertise.

“A major downside is that information on TikTok can be false, misleading, or confusing,” said Torres-Mackie. “Even when valid information is presented without context as it often is on social media, it can lead to false conclusions. Say, for example, a clinician on TikTok discusses a symptom of ADHD that you experience. Without the full context of all the clinical criteria of ADHD and a diagnostic exam, it is impossible to know if you truly have the condition.”

Be aware that there are countless people on social media without formal mental health training or with training in another area of expertise who speak on topics about which they are not fully informed. It can be easy to take some information or advice that is presented online and apply it to yourself in a way that is inaccurate.

Torres-Mackie also reminds us that being on social media itself can be damaging to mental health. “If you are opening social media apps to get mental health information, there’s a high likelihood you will drift to other content that is not supportive of mental wellbeing.”

While TikTok may not be the first place that mental health professionals would suggest potential patients go for help, it is undeniable that the accessibility is compelling and certainly can open doors to more traditional means of therapy.

“In a way, it makes mental health help more accessible. It means that more interest around mental health topics is gaining traction in popular culture, which can be positive for the stigmatization of mental health,” said Torres-Mackie. “However, true mental health support is difficult to find in one-way platforms like TikTok, where there’s not a back-and-forth dialogue and advice that is tailored specifically to you.”

Other sources to consider for mental health help include The Mental Health Coalition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or Mental Health America, all of which provide free, online, robust resources from licensed providers.

That’s not to say that TikTok cannot open doors for people. Talking about mental health was a huge obstacle that needed to be overcome. Once something feels normalized to the greater population, it’s a lot easier to seek help.

“My hope is that mental health professionals meeting people where they are at, like TikTok, will open the door for people to seek traditional therapy,” said Fleming. “I also know that we need more than just traditional therapy to combat the rising mental health crisis. Traditional therapy is needed, however prevention work is also needed.”

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