What happens when mental health struggles go viral?

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It is an exciting and hopeful phenomenon to see the way mental health conversations have grown through social media, and especially Tiktok. For many people, Tiktok might be the first place they find someone who they identify with regarding their mental health struggles. Anyone can instantly find raw, relatable, and personal stories and information on mental health struggles that can validate their feelings and create a sense of community. In fact, these stories are catered to us. As we see a few that we like, more and more of this content is given to us. 

Tiktok has a unique way of creating community and sourcing validation for our personal experiences. In many ways, this is improving our understanding of mental health and reducing stigma by normalizing these struggles. By seeing these videos and content, we can begin to empathize with others and challenge our own misconceptions of how certain mental health conditions manifest.

What do experts think?

Many mental health experts are really excited about this phenomenon and even creating their own Tiktoks to reach and engage with communities in an easy and efficient way. 

“It’s [Tiktok is] highlighting mental health conditions and bringing awareness to these issues, which are really important,” says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, assistant professor and director of the outpatient clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA) in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “And, it’s reaching a lot of young people whom we know are becoming more comfortable talking about mental health and mental health issues and how to manage symptoms of anxiety, depression, OCD, or PTSD,” she says.

“Most of the focus on mental health I see on TikTok is positive,” says psychiatrist David J. Puder, MD, medical director of the MEND program at Loma Linda University Behavioral Health in Loma Linda, California (who has his own TikTok platform). “I love the enthusiasm for understanding the mind and science. I think we can do a lot to reduce stigma and get people into mental health treatment. Knowledge is empowering to people who might not otherwise have access.”

Are there any downsides?

There is also justified caution in promoting this phenomenon, especially in categorizing deeply personal experiences into boxes and labels. 

“The idea of being able to categorize mental illness like you’re categorizing insects, for example, is something that is very complicated and probably is not valid in the context of psychiatric disorders and psychological suffering,” Joël Billieux, a Professor of clinical psychology, psychopathology, and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne, explains. “These labels are very reductive in terms of defining the psychology of someone, and they tend to ignore individual differences.” He cites studies showing that anywhere between 5 and 30 percent of the general population experience auditory or visual hallucinations - which are stereotypically attributed to mental illness - at some point in their lives without any other issues.

We all have likely found ourselves delving into rabbit holes on google of self-diagnosing our symptoms and perhaps coming to the conclusion we have a certain illness or condition, that maybe even our consulted health professionals missed. It is natural for us to label and categorize things to help us understand what’s going on, feel validated, and get the right help. 

Self-diagnosing can be seen as a great step towards the direction of acknowledging and getting the right help, but it’s important to seek advice and work alongside a professional who has vast knowledge and experience working on mental health and understands medical conditions. These professionals include physicians, psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, psychologists, social workers, and counselors. We can work with professionals to help sort through symptoms read or heard about online, and what might be going on in your personal life. 

Final thoughts

Social media can greatly improve individual access to mental health services and reduce the hurdle of finding help. Many professionals now have their own social media accounts where you can message them directly and receive answers instantly. It has never been easier to find a trusted medical professional to receive guidance and information. 

It is okay and encouraged for young people to explore and learn more about what they may be going through on their own, but it’s important that young people receive evidence-based and medically vetted information. The same way social media can spread awareness rapidly, it can also fuel and spread misinformation. Mental health diagnoses are treated in many different ways and those trained professionals can guide individuals to what feels best for them.


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