November 28, 2022

Mental health tips on social media are a mixed bag.

Your favorite online creator might give valid advice on managing anxiety symptoms or drawing boundaries with family members. They also might spread wrong information or use their platform to promote dubious products.

Not only did mentions of mental health on social media increase during the pandemic, many influencers shifted their focus from “raising awareness” to offering guidance, creators say. And because real-world mental health care can be expensive, difficult to access and stigmatized, more young people are turning to social media to figure out how to manage difficult thoughts and feelings.

Online creators are de facto therapists for millions. It’s complicated.

That’s not always a bad thing, experts say. Lots of mental health content creators are licensed therapists, social workers or doctors with deep clinical experience. Others share takeaways from their own mental health journeys that help audiences feel less alone.

But health information on social media can go sideways fast. Since mental health content elicits a big reaction, creators might use it to boost their views. Some influencers present fringe theories as if they’re fact or misrepresent their qualifications. And because engaging with this type of content means social media algorithms will show you more of it, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Mental health matters, and so does the information you consume. Here are six simple questions to help determine whether a piece of online content is helpful and true.

What are the creator’s qualifications?

Being a health-care or social work professional doesn’t automatically make you a mental health expert — but it doesn’t hurt.

Trustworthy creators should list their qualifications in their bios so audiences know what background they have, said Kali Hobson, a physician specializing in adult and child psychiatry who makes TikToks at the handle @drkalimd. Licensed therapists, counselors, social workers, nurses and doctors are more likely to share true health information.

Some creators aren’t mental health professionals, and that’s ok as long as they’re honest about their qualifications and avoid giving medical advice, said Christine Gibson, a doctor turned trauma therapist who makes TikToks at the handle @tiktoktraumadoc. Just make sure creators aren’t presenting themselves as experts when they’re actually enthusiasts, she said. Be cautious about slippery titles like “coach” or “expert” that don’t give much insight into a person’s training.

Can you find research on the topic?

If you’re interested in a mental health topic, do some research outside of social media, Hobson said.

Google Scholar is a search engine specifically for academic research. When I typed in “treating anxiety and depression,” for instance, top results included research on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of mindfulness, mental health apps and acupuncture. Click on a study and read the section titled “abstract” for a summary of its findings. The National Institute of Mental Health also has fact sheets on various mental health concerns.

Psychology research doesn’t always reflect people’s real experiences. For much of the field’s history, both researchers and study subjects were overwhelmingly White and male, said Leandro Olszanski, a licensed counselor who makes TikToks at the handle @tu.terapeuta.en.tiktok. That means women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community often don’t see their experiences reflected, said Jennie “Toli” Gintoli, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who makes TikToks at the handle @quirky.queer.therapist.

If you’re worried researchers and practitioners won’t understand your experience — don’t give up on your fact-finding mission, Gintoli said. Today diverse professionals are working to fill the gaps in our understanding of mental health. Look for community centers or student organizations in your area, send an email to a licensed professional who shares your identity or find an online community who can point you toward real-world resources.

Apps offer teens some one-and-done settings to stay safer online. Here’s a crash course.

How does it make your body feel?

Just like some people in real life make you feel drained after you hang out, social media content can leave you feeling worse than before.

While you scroll, check in with your body, Gibson suggested. Do you feel calm and engaged with the video’s message? Or do you feel anxious, irritable or zoned out? Those signals clue us in when content is unhelpful. If your body or brain feel numb or you feel pressure to keep scrolling for some type of “fix,” it’s time to step away, she said.

Valid, helpful content should make you feel encouraged — not hopeless, angry or conspiratorial.

Who else is talking about it?

If a particular concept — such as trauma, attachment styles or meditation — jumps out at you, type it into the search bar and see what other creators are talking about it, Gintoli said. Are most other videos from licensed professionals, or is the topic a favorite among nonexperts? Check the comment sections as well. Are there lots of comments from mental health professionals disagreeing with the video’s claims?

Is it generalizing, or emphasizing diagnosis over symptoms?

Social media isn’t the place to diagnose yourself or others, Gintoli said. If you go through a painful breakup, for example, diagnosing your ex with clinical narcissism might feel good in the moment, but it won’t fix those feelings of hurt and betrayal.

Sometimes, patients come to Gintoli concerned they have a particular disorder after seeing a post on social media, she said. Rather than focusing on a diagnosis, she helps them understand their symptoms and how to address them.

Not everyone experiences mental illness the same way. When creators mention specific symptoms, situations or feelings as if they’re true for everyone with a particular condition, that’s a red flag, said Hobson. For example, a video listing “symptoms of dissociative identity disorder” might be accurate for the creator themselves, but others could experience the same disorder differently. The same goes for treatment — what works for one person might not be right for another.

If a creator is diagnosing people online, unfollow. And remember that no diagnosis means you’re broken or unable to live a good life.

“I try to explain to my clients and people in general, just because you meet the criteria for a disorder, it doesn’t mean that that’s part of your identity or that you will always meet the criteria for a disorder,” Olszanski said.

Is it pretending to be treatment?

The lines between social media and “real life” aren’t always as clear as we pretend they are. Social media can play a genuine role in our journeys toward better mental health, but it can’t replace the type of individualized treatment you’d get from a therapist, Gintoli said.

If you’re worried about finding a therapist who understands your background and experiences, use the search tools from Psychology Today, InclusiveTherapists.com or InnoPsych to filter based on your needs.

No matter what, find someone you can reach out to when you’re feeling low.

“It may not be a parent. It may not be a therapist. It may be a friend. It may be somebody you met on Discord,” Gintoli said. “TikTok is not therapy. However, I have made some amazing friends on TikTok.”

TikTok has said it supports people sharing their personal wellness journeys and will remove medical misinformation.

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