Tough Stuff

Should you look for mental health advice on TikTok?

A year ago, Chloe R.'s TikTok homepage was filled with content clearly chosen for her by the algorithm: biology homework hacks, three-minute yoga tutorials and vegan Valentine's baking how-to's. 

But after struggling with her mental health during the pandemic, the 16-year-old's FYP now features fewer tree poses and more tips on things like navigating toxic relationships and how to be less socially awkward.

And she's not the only one scrolling through mental health content on the social media platform. In a digital world where emotional well-being is a priority among teens, TikTok has become a seemingly safe space to share just about everything.

Just check out the #mentalhealth and #therapistsoftiktok hashtags (which have billions of views combined) for vids showing everything from what it's like to live with OCD to depression confessions.

Even celebs have shared their own innermost thoughts: The usually upbeat Lizzo recently posted a tearful TikTok where she questioned, "You know that part of sadness where you feel...nobody cares about you? Why do we feel this way when we get sad?" (She later shared that she was feeling better, had spoken to her therapist and that the 48,000 comments made her feel seen and heard.)

But is TikTok also ~the drama~? Maybe. As relatable as the content you watch may be, it can also be misleading—and even create more problems instead of solving them.

"Sometimes the content is relatable because it can apply to almost anyone," explains therapist Courtney Conley. "If you're not feeling great to begin with, it can perpetuate a feeling that something's wrong with you—even when you're just experiencing normal moodines or temporary sadness."

When you open the app and start scrolling on a tough day, remember these mental health TikTok truths—so you can actually enjoy your feed without messing with your mind.

The truth: TikTok can make you feel validated.
One thing TikTok's great for? Reminding you that you are not alone. (Just ask Lizzo.) "Watching influencers open up about their struggles has normalized the anxiety I go through," shares Siena J., 15. 

Plus, reading the comments and being able to engage with thousands of people experiencing the same stuff can also make you feel a lot less isolated. Says Hanna K., 16: "I follow so many TikTokers who have started important conversations normalizing not being OK."

And, according to the experts, this is a good thing. "If the TikTok posts you're consuming are alleviating feelings of isolation and helping you engage in more internal self-reflection, that's a win," says clinical psychologist Dr. Lauren Kerwin.

The truth: TikTok should not diagnose you.
It's one thing to go to TikTok as a way to identify with others. But you should never go to a stranger for an easy fix for your feelings. And with such an overabundance of content on a platform like TikTok, it's easy to a) fall into the self-diagnosis trap and b) take a random person's guidance as the holy grail.

"It's dangeous to over-identify with a diagnosis, especially one that hasn't been given to you from a mental health professional," Conley says. "Removing the stigma is great, but you need to be able to navigate and work through what you're actually experiencing."

Say you discover an influencer spilling about social anxiety. And her issues sound a lot like yours (she feels super self-conscious at parties, too?). As familiar as her anecdotes may seem, don't label your feelings just yet. That's what doctors are for...and they're here for you. 

The truth: TikTok is not the same as therapy.
Speaking of doctors, please see one if you are struggling with your mental health. While it's amazing that you can gain access to a global network of experts on your phone, TikTok is not a replacement for therapy IRL. "There's no real give-and-take relationship on TikTok," Dr. Kerwin explains about the patient/professional dynamic, which is based on the individual client and ethical standars, not a one-size-fits-all approach.

In other words, what works for one person you follow may not be right for you. So if you're looking to *truly* connect, talk to a trusted adult about seeing a professional.

The truth: Even "experts" on TikToks need to be vetted.
On social media, tried-and-true experts post content alongside people who are, well, anything but. "Not all information is created equal," says Conley. "You have to be really careful to filter through what makes sense."

If you wind up on a TikTok from a licensed mental health professional, you can probably take the information they are sharing seriously. That said, still Google their credentials to be sure you can trust what they're saying.

The truth: TikTok is supposed to be fun.
It's key to remember that TikTok is, for the most part, meant to be a brain break—not something that causes you extra stress or worry.

So if you find yourself getting too deep in the mental health space (or if you're triggered by the content being sent your way), try to realign your algorithm to avoid getting dragged down. (Or, even better, take a break from the app for a few weeks...or months.)

"You should see TikTok as what it is: entertaiment," advises Dr. Kerwin. "No algorithm truly knows your life, so balance it with actual relationshps in the real world." After all, these years are about discovering who you are, what you like and what you genuinely stand for—and you can't do that while scrolling through videos on a screen.

From TikTok therapy to *actual* therapy: Here's how to get help.

Identify your conerns.
If the mental health content you watch on TikTok raises red flags for you (or if you're struggling with your emotions or physical health and it's impacting your day-to-day), pinpoint exactly what you're feeling. Note: You'll want to come in with a list of statements rather than a singular suspected diagnosis.

Reach out.
It can be scary to confide in someone, but it's a necessary step. Find a trusted adult (like a parent, counselor, coach or teacher) and clearly express what you're feeling: "I am struggling with [self-esteem/obsessive thoughts/whatever it is] and I want to talk to a professional about it."

Seek out the right therapist.
You might need to meet with a few therapists before you find a good fit. They should feel like someone you can share anything with—but who also will hold you accountable for the choices you make. It can be awkward to meet with any therapist at first, but with a little time, you should eventually notice a change for the better. If you don't, speak up or switch.

Need help right now? Reach out immediately to a toll-free confidential hotline like 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-999-9999 or text HOME to 741741.

Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that this story originally ran in our February/March 2022 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE

All GIFs via GIPHY


by Katherine Hammer | 2/6/2022