In this article:
- Social media provides a space for people to share their experiences and learn more about mental health issues that have traditionally been stigmatized.
- But when unlicensed content creators present their opinions and unresearched claims as verifiable facts, it can create a lot of problems and confusion around the topic.
- From unqualified diagnoses to pathologizing healthy behavior to trivializing a real disorder for the people who actually have them, there’s a dark side to social media psychology.
- Despite these dangers, mental health professionals still believe that, when used carefully, social media can be a great tool for guiding people toward the help they need and learning more about the resources available to them.
Mental health has always been an important part of our overall health, but it hasn’t always gotten the same attention or prioritization that physical health gets.
Enter the pandemic, and people suddenly started understanding just how important mental health actually is. According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of depression and anxiety increased by an alarming 25% worldwide during the first year of the global health crisis.
As the mental health crisis grew in the past two years, so did the reliance on digital technology. The combination of these trends led to new practices, like teletherapy and more open discussions on mental health in digital spaces.
There was also a flipside to taking all of our mental health concerns to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, though. Here, we’ll explore how psychology exists in the social media environment and what good, bad, and ugly has come out of it.
Social Media Is Revolutionizing Mental Health
Social media has played an undoubtedly significant role in changing the way we communicate, do business, and socialize with one another. Now, it has also revolutionized the way we approach mental health.
Therapist Jaime Mahler talks about how platforms like TikTok are paving the way for mental health advocates who are sharing their experiences and reducing the long-standing stigma on medication and certain mental health conditions.
“Then we also have therapists on the app explaining things in unique ways,” Mahler adds. “Creating visuals or showing the application of how something would show up in someone’s life. Then we have real people’s voices, with their faces, allowing them to share authentic parts of who they are.”
The result is a digital space that people can rely on for access to bite-sized information regarding different mental health struggles. This can be used to describe, explain, and analyze the behaviors of their parents, partners, friends, and especially themselves.
TikTok influencers like social worker Nadia Addesi and psychiatrist Dr. Melissa Shepard are just two examples of mental health advocates who continue to create some of the most helpful mental health content out there.
The Downside of Going Viral
While normalizing mental health through open discussions is a step in the right direction, there are also some dangers that come with it. These efforts to remove the stigma from everyday conversations about mental health have also paved the way for the spread of misinformation.
Take, for example, mental health creators like Raquel Olsson, who is not a licensed therapist. She has faced criticism from professionals on the platform for creating misleading content on mental health.
In one of her videos, she discussed the four traits of what she called “high functioning anxiety.” She claimed that having a cheery demeanor was a sign of lacking boundaries while appearing calm and put together was a sign of needing reassurance.
When compared to licensed therapist Micheline Maalouf’s video on the lesser-known symptoms of anxiety, the format and validity of the information can be difficult to differentiate. And this is where the problems come in.
Olsson certainly isn’t the first nor will she be the last content creator to talk about mental health. Thousands of videos appear on TikTok every day, many of which present their claims as facts without the evidence to back them up.
While experts like Maalouf and Shepard don’t mind more creators discussing their own mental health experiences on the platform, they do emphasize that pathologizing common traits stems from a lack of understanding of these medical conditions.
Another important distinction to make is that lived experience does not automatically equate to correct factual information. Many non-professionals on TikTok give advice based on how they feel or perceive things, perhaps labeling them as symptoms and conditions without the proper knowledge and expertise to make such diagnoses.
There is also a risk that comes with relationship-building between unqualified mental health content creators and viewers. There is no guarantee that they will not exploit or abuse the relationship they have with their followers.
Unlike licensed psychologists, who can have their credentials and authority to practice stripped for unethical behavior, there is nothing stopping life coaches and influencers from taking advantage of their followers.
The Dangers of Armchair Psychology
It may seem harmless to share mental health information this way. Some may think it is better to be hyper-aware rather than remain in the dark when it comes to mental conditions. However, armchair psychology can do more harm than good.
Unlike professional psychologists who work by gathering data through scientific observations, armchair psychology is mostly done through introspection. People who take this approach typically base their recommendations on what has worked in their own life and what makes sense to them personally, rather than considering empirical data. It can be a helpful tool in this field, but when done without the right training, it can result in limited or incorrect views about others.
Here are a few reasons armchair psychology can be harmful, especially on social media:
- People begin to live up to labels. By mistakenly telling somebody that they are borderline, obsessive compulsive, or any other pathological term, they may begin to behave in such a way that supports that judgment. This is called projective identification.
- It ignores context and leads to stereotyping. Many mood and personality disorders are caused by situational factors such as abuse or neglect. Trained therapists and counselors work through these layers to understand the core person underneath. Attaching a label to the behaviors we observe only reinforces our assumptions of how people with mental conditions feel, think, and behave. Rather than seeing the person apart from the condition, armchair psychology tends to focus on the stereotypical case of the person with the mental illness.
- It treads the line between normal and unhealthy. Just because an individual may have character traits that are odd or unusual, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they meet the clinical threshold for a mental disorder. Armchair diagnoses can cause those who are labeled as such to experience unnecessary distress. It also trivializes conditions for those who are really struggling with them.
- Opportunities for real help are missed. Casually diagnosing somebody with a mental illness can go one of two ways. Ideally, they should see a professional to further validate these observations and get the help that they need. However, it is often the case with armchair diagnoses that people blindly accept labels for mental conditions without seeking help, which is more dangerous.
The Limitations of Discussing Mental Health on Social Media
There are many ways that social media can increase the acceptance of mental health issues as they exist for some people. This act of normalizing such conversations also reduces the stigma associated with those conditions. It’s important to remember, though, that there are also limitations to discussing mental health on social media.
Many TikTok mental health content creators, especially qualified ones, stress that watching videos does not equate to therapy. The intention behind posting on such platforms is to provide a basic understanding of mental health and to encourage those who are concerned to seek professional help.
As illuminating as these creative videos and snippets of information are on the platform, they simply aren’t enough.
“TikTok can’t be therapy because therapy involves individualized care,” Mahler says. “The therapist creates the entire treatment plan around the client as an individual. It also is held to ethical standards and confidentiality in an interpersonal exchange.”
TikTok cannot replace therapy because there is no confidentiality and individualization when consuming information through watching videos.
Some professionals like therapist Shani Tran count people who seek therapy because they first engaged with their content first as the ultimate success. Thanks to the app, more people are learning about the different forms of therapy and affordable, quality resources for help.
Improving Social Media and Mental Health Moving Forward
So where do we go from here? How can the situation of misinformation and risks for mental health be rectified on social media platforms?
First, it helps to understand that these circumstances are symptomatic of a larger problem: a broken healthcare system. Many issues that TikTok tries to answer are related to gaps and inequalities in access to mental healthcare.
In a private healthcare system, most insurance plans are stingy when it comes to mental health coverage. And even for those who have good insurance, there might not be much access to therapy depending on the state they live in and how close they are to a major city.
Second, users need to be more discerning about what content they are consuming and the credentials of the content creators. Tran suggests that viewers look up whether a mental health advocate on TikTok is actually a licensed therapist in any state.
Similarly, Maalouf recommends checking if a therapist is certified by their state’s licensing board. But this can only go so far. Millions of TikTok users are on the platform because it is quick and easy to scroll through content, and they probably won’t take the time to check for credentials.
Instead, the responsibility falls on social media platforms themselves to make more of an effort to curb the spread of misinformation and misleading content in their spaces.
Badges can be added to verified mental health professionals’ profiles on the platform to differentiate them from mental health advocates, for example. A verification system would also allow professionals to discuss sensitive topics on the platform without being flagged for it.
The Bottom Line
Despite the bad and ugly parts of armchair psychology on TikTok, this platform and other social media channels remain an important part of what shapes mental health today. By using it responsibly, there is a greater chance that a viewer who really needs professional help can get it. It also provides opportunities for underrepresented professionals, such as therapists from the Black community, to reach out to specific audiences who may not always feel seen.
Ultimately, social media has given people a safe space to explore. This makes it possible for them to one day say, “You know what? Therapy might just be for me.”