21 May 2021

TikTok Therapy: Trendy, Transformative, and Troubling?

The best things in life are free: skincare samples, hugs, and… therapy?

Noticed any videos with hashtags like #TikTokTherapy, #TherapistsofTikTok and #MentalHealthAwareness as you scroll through TikTok?

In this time of uncertainty, there’s one thing that’s certain: everyone’s on TikTok. Indeed, this video-sharing app is one of the few blessings from the global pandemic. There are endless videos that’d brighten up our days. As I was exploring the app, I stumbled upon one a highly featured # on the Discover page — TikTok Therapy.

Hi, you’ve made it to this side of TikTok!

TikTok Therapy is a stream of videos made by mental health professionals to reduce stigma as well as spread awareness around therapy and mental health conditions. It gives mental health a new landscape. Instead of a dull office space, therapists explain symptoms, techniques, and solutions in a more groovy and trendy way — while rapping and busting dance moves.

Why’s TikTok therapy THE new thing?

Coronavirus isn’t the only viral thing nowadays. Counsellors and psychologists are joining in and hopping on trends just to spread mental health awareness. So, why’s this type of video highly demanded by the lockdown generation?

1. Accessibility

TikTok therapeutic advice is free, while therapy is… well, not. In fact, therapy can be costly and many shy away because of financial problems. Then came down this heaven-sent app where free advice is available anytime, anywhere (and within 60 seconds!). This accessibility has made it so addicting, comforting, and relatable.

2. Digital Safe Space

Unlike Instagram which often portrays the greener side of life, TikTok’s content is raw, unfiltered and shows much more relatable content. The TikTok community often connects in the comment section — agreeing, cheering, and supporting one another. Someone who's uncomfortable opening up in real life (due to social stigma or other factors) may feel differently online thanks to the anonymity. TikTok provides a sense of community and freedom to express our feelings in the most unorthodox ways.

3. Sense of Validation

I came across a video where a therapist was listing the common behaviours of an overthinker. The 1-minute video almost took up an hour in my mind. Luckily (or rather unluckily) this went on until my phone accidentally fell flat on my face and snapped me out of it. I almost self-diagnosed myself. Though it did make me fall down the rabbit hole for a little while, in a way, it comforted me to know that it’s normal behaviour. That I’m not the only one behaving this way. These types of videos may validate your feelings and act as a comforting blanket of reassurance that you’re not alone.

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TikTok: The 60-Second Trouble

As much good as these videos intend to give by spreading awareness and de-stigmatising mental health issues, it can also pose problems such as romanticising mental health.

1. Self-diagnosis

You can either downplay the mental health disorder or overemphasise it. For example, if you feel overwhelmed by anxiety in a particular situation, you may self-diagnose of having anxiety disorder and downplay the actual disorder. On the other hand, if you’ve insomnia and depression, you may think you’ve a sleep disorder and major depression. However, major depression can account for all of these symptoms, which could make things worse by excessive worrying. 

“Though there are general feelings and behaviours that one has when experiencing an illness, your experiences and treatment are unique. Being unclear with your diagnosis and treatment plan might do more harm than good,” said Kathleeya Narisha Richard, co-founder of various mental health initiatives such as Connect TULC, KauOkTak, and ListenToMeLah

“It’s similar with infographics you see on the risks and symptoms of cancer circulating the internet. It doesn’t mean you should avoid consulting a professional when you think you have cancer,” she adds.

Tip: Is all that worrying causing you to feel burnt out? The Connect TULC team shares their tips to avoid burnouts.

2. Content Creators are NOT Therapists

Mental health professionals include therapists, psychologists, and counsellors. Content creators don’t fit the list. Within the app, the line between content creators and shrinks can easily be blurred. Some content creators may abuse their massive follower counts and spread false therapy advice just to gain more views. Thus, it’s important to just absorb the information with a hint of salt and without associating or defining yourself based on it.

3. Platform for Predators

Anonymity is a blessing to some but an opportunity to others. Some predators may use the app to communicate, influence, or harass younger users by sending explicit messages and pictures. The safety of TikTok is questionable as the app once failed to remove accounts that are flagged/reported. This is even more concerning when the minimum age requirement for this app is 13 years old. Users and parents of users are advised to remain vigilant for such accounts and interactions.

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Trendy, Transformative, but NOT a Treatment

“One size doesn’t fit all. An analogy is that two people who are suicidal can’t have the same solution,” says Aqil Zulkarnain, co-founder of Connect TULC, a peer-support initiative aimed to create a safe space while fostering mental health. 

Therapy videos are reassuring, however, due to algorithms we may be bombarded with one therapy video after another. Most people use this app to spend their downtime relaxing, so getting advice when you’re not seeking them is an unpleasant feeling. “It can be overwhelming and cause unnecessary triggers or even panic attacks. Someone who wrongly self-diagnoses may overthink. This in turn worsens their mental health,” says Aqil. 

Here’s what you can do if you’re worried about your mental health:

1. Reach Out for Professional Help

Make use of the governmental, private, and NGO resources available. Don’t shy away from these mental health facilities. Mental health issues should be treated professionally, just like any physical illness. Another alternative is support groups. Though it may feel like a daunting concept, it can help one feel less alone and disconnected allowing you to talk openly about your feelings and get practical feedback on treatment options.

Tip: Need emotional and psychological? Taylor’s Centre for Counselling Services (CCS) provides free, strictly confidential services for all Taylorians.

2. Develop a Self-care Plan

Sometimes you can become mentally tired and often forget to take care of yourselves. Don’t undermine the power of eating healthy and exercising! In fact, exercising may help in dealing with depression and anxiety. Develop and stick to a self-care plan — watch those cat videos or paint your heart out (literally, anything that makes you smile).

Tackling It Together

To sum up, there aren’t any quick, easy fixes in tackling mental health. Mini doses of therapy videos are not a substitute for therapy, although, let’s give some credit to how TikTok does give tremendous effort in reducing knowledge gaps about mental health. But, as many benefits as these videos bring, it’s a double-edged sword. Hence, you should be cautious with tips received and given. The tips offered by licensed professionals are purely educational and not diagnostic

At the end of the day, it’s vital to keep this in mind: Your mental health doesn’t define who you are.

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Puteri Nelissa Milani completed her Bachelor of Business (Honours) Finance and Economics at Taylor's University in August 2020. She is also a journalist for the independent student-run organisation Financial Literacy for Youths: Malaysia (FLY: Malaysia). 

Puteri Nelissa Milani
Guest Contributor