How did TikTok become a mental health resource?

Updated 2 years ago on November 02, 2022

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

TikTok, a social media app known for its short 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 soared to superstardom: it was reportedly downloaded 850 million times worldwide in 2020.

TikTok has become a platform for thousands of health professionals, including psychiatrists, therapists and mental health advocates, who use the app's wide distribution to talk to audiences about everything from depression to ADHD.

In 2020, 52.9 million Americans were living with a mental illness. That's nearly one in five adults.

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

However, with such a high percentage of people living with mental health problems, there are many barriers for Americans to seek and receive mental health care. In the 2021 study, 50,103 adults participated, of whom 95.6 percent indicated at least one barrier to accessing care. Some of the barriers cited included accessibility, meaning no place to go when sick or needing advice; affordability, meaning no way to make an appointment or find an office available; and accessibility, meaning the cost per session.

Because of these barriers, only about half of Americans living with mental health problems receive mental health services.

According to Pew Research, 85 percent of Americans own a smartphone. There has never been greater access to information than now, including access to apps like TikTok and the content shared on its platform. With such widespread accessibility and the fact that mental illness has increased so dramatically during the pandemic, it's not surprising that experts and advocates have turned to TikTok to spread the word on how to better address mental health.

"The obvious advantage is the accessibility of the information - TikTok is a free service that anyone with Internet access can use," says Naomi Torres-Maki, PhD, a psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Lindsey Fleming, a licensed psychotherapist, is one of the mental health experts who used TikTok to reach a wide audience. She ran a group for middle school girls, but had to cancel the group sessions because of COVID-19.

"Some of the members told me how much they missed the group, so I created TikTok to help support the 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 seek help not only from my videos, but also from many other mental health advocates and therapists on TikTok."

Fleming connects with people on TikTok and builds community through her videos on the nuances of therapy. She also holds weekly "lives" (or live sessions) where she holds a check-in session and answers questions her community might have. Over time, the number of subscribers to her account has exceeded half a million, a testament to how many people are looking for a way to connect.

"We often talk about the importance of therapy, but we also talk about what a therapy session actually looks like. We talk about funny, funny, and more rewarding moments in therapy."

As with anything on the Internet, verification is a major drawback to using TikTok or any other social networking site for an important issue like mental health.

Who are the professionals on the other side of the screen, and are they who they say they are? Equally important, can the advice they give be trusted and confirmed by clinical research? Mental health is not something to be taken lightly or frivolously, and just because someone has a platform for sharing their advice does not necessarily mean they are expert.

"The main disadvantage is that information on TikTok can be false, misleading or confusing," Torres-Maki says. "Even when credible information is presented without context, as is often the case on social media, it can lead to false conclusions. Say, for example, a doctor on TikTok discusses a symptom of ADHD that you're experiencing. Without the full context of all the clinical criteria for ADHD and a diagnostic evaluation, it's impossible to know if you really have the disorder."

Keep in mind that there are many people on social media with no formal education in mental health or with education in another area of expertise who talk about topics about which they are not fully informed. It can be easy to take some of the information or advice presented online and apply it to yourself in an inaccurate way.

Torres-Maki also reminds us that being on social media itself can be detrimental to mental health. "If you open social media apps to get mental health information, there's a good chance you'll go to other content that's not conducive to mental well-being."

While TikTok may not be the first place mental health professionals would advise potential patients to seek help, it is undeniable that its accessibility is compelling and could definitely open doors to more traditional therapies.

"In some ways, it makes mental health care more accessible. This means that mental health topics are gaining interest in popular culture, which can have a positive impact on the stigma of mental health," Torres-Maki says. "However, real support for mental health is hard to find on one-way platforms like TikTok, where there's no back and forth dialogue and advice designed just for you."

Other sources of mental health care include the Mental Health Coalition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or Mental Health America, which provide free, online, reliable resources from licensed providers.

This is not to say that TikTok can't open doors for people. Talking about mental health was a huge obstacle to overcome. When something seems normal to the general population, it's much easier to ask for help.

"My hope is that mental health professionals meeting people where they are, like at TikTok, will open the door for people to turn to traditional therapies," Fleming says. "I also know that we need more than just traditional therapies to combat the growing mental health crisis. Traditional therapies are necessary, but prevention work is also necessary."

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