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 was also noted as 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.
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 – her 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 found 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.
How many people are watching therapy TikToks?
I am far from alone in finding solace in mental health and neurodivergency content on the app. 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 kick 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'.
The people behind this content have fans in their droves. 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 dispense 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, or perhaps stating that innocuous behaviour – such as 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 – mental health, is seeking help via a 60-second video a good idea?
Frances, 22, thinks there's value to be found in these clips. She has recently been diagnosed with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by her GP, after a lengthy process. Prior to her diagnosis, she watched numerous videos on TikTok discussing the condition, as well as mental health issues.
While she thought that a diagnosis of ADHD may explain a lot about how she moves through the world, seeing others discuss certain symptoms of the condition helped to reinforce the idea. It also gave her a chance to think differently about events in her life that she had ascribed to '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 what a diagnosis means for her.
Jennifer*, 22, has used the information she found on the app to give her a way to cope with her experiences of what she believes to be depression and anxiety – she does not have a formal diagnosis, at present – in the absence of mental health treatment.
For her, the videos have provided some comfort in a tricky time.'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,' she explains.
It's not that she hasn't sought out IRL help. She 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 isn'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 in-person and individualised mental health care due to long wait lists and financial constraints is not limited to Jennifer. Mental health charity Mind’s report on accessing talking therapies found that one in ten people referred for such a service has 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 with and where you go.
The complexity and importance of mental health and neurodivergence can't 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.
What's the danger of these videos?
Psychotherapist Sam Nabil, owner of Naya Clinics, is not on TikTok, 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.'
That's not to say he's not sympathetic. '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.'
He's not the only one with doubts. Millie, 22, has ADHD and believes that TikTok videos regarding the condition could be helpful for people to to 'get a wider perspective on mental health and neurodivergence.' But, she thinks there is a danger of certain TikTok creators 'pathologising' normal behaviour – like the not wanting to tidy your room example – 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.
What does a clinical psychologist think?
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 gives her expertise on issues including gaslighting, panic attacks, health anxiety and abandonment issues.
Dr Schnack is concerned by the numerous unqualified people operating on the platform. These, she says, might use ambiguous and unregulated job titles such as '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 individuals to be clear that they are not mental health professionals, qualified psychologists or therapists when uploading videos, to ensure that those watching are not 'duped' by potentially incorrect information.
Dr Schnack emphasises 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.
As to why such content is booming in popularity? 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 sometimes be too generalised to work for certain people.
She also suggests that the pandemic is a major factor in the ubiquity of these videos, thanks to many of us spending so much time inside and on our phones – as well as the increase of mental health struggles thanks to prolonged isolation from support networks.
'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 says.
How can you check who is a qualified professional?
If you do access these clips, she recommends ensuring that they are made by people trained and qualified in the subject they are discussing, and, even then, that you don't rely solely on their information, when it comes to your mental health or issues around neurodivergence.
(Choose videos that come from a qualified professional, such as a clinical psychologist. If a person says that they are a therapist, you can check if they are registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, via their register. If you are concerned that you are dealing with a mental health issue, head to your GP to discuss your symptoms.)
What's the bottom line?
So, where does that leave us? My take is this: Two things are true at once. People, including myself, 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. The potential for self-diagnosis via social media is, obviously though, potentially an extremely dangerous problem. The same goes for the number of unqualified people giving out generalised advice on complex matters.
One thing is for certain, however: amid a global pandemic, 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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