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Could TikTok Be An Aid in Substance Use Disorder Recovery?

Teenage boy sits on couch looking at his phone

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Key Takeaways

• Some people are using TikTok to help in their substance use disorder recovery.

• Videos about recovery have amassed millions of views on the video-sharing app.

• It can be difficult to access formal treatment, so some are turning to TikTok as a substitute.

Getting formal treatment for substance use disorder can be difficult, and some people are turning to TikTok to help them in their recovery instead. 

It’s no secret that TikTok is huge, and hugely popular. The video-sharing platform boasts over 1.5 billion monthly active users, and the most popular accounts rack up millions of followers and billions of likes. Some people are even self-diagnosing through TikTok.

And among the many and varied TikTok trends centered around mental health are videos about substance use disorder recovery. 

A study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence highlighted 82 of the most-liked TikTok videos related to either cutting down or cutting out the use of substances or strengthening substance use disorder recovery. 

The videos analyzed in the study all amassed a large number of views and likes, averaging two million and 325,000 respectively. Over 40% of videos showed somebody’s journey from substance use to recovery, while over a third involved celebrating or sharing a milestone. Over one in ten related to recurrence of substance use.

Why Are People Turning to TikTok In Place of Treatment?

According to the study, around 20 million Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder each year, but only around 10% will receive formal treatment.

Substance use disorders are more common than people might think, and as recognized by the DSM-5, can result from the use of a range of substances, from alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco to cannabis, hallucinogens, opioids, and stimulants.

For a lot of people living with a substance use disorder, it can be difficult to receive formal treatment services. In many areas, there simply aren’t enough services available to meet the needs of the population while there’s still a very real stigma surrounding substance use disorders.

This can discourage people from seeking help, whether that’s from friends or relatives or in the form of formal treatment, and can even discourage politicians and policy-makers from addressing substance use disorder treatment and allocating funds towards it.

Yuko Nippoda, MA

TikTok videos can give hope, empowerment, and encouragement, and professionals can take advantage of this positive mindset that these videos can help people achieve their goals even if they still have a fear of failure.

— Yuko Nippoda, MA

"Many people with substance use disorder are in denial that they have issues and, if they know they have a problem, they may wish to conceal this, as they might lapse and not wish to face the consequences of failure," explains Yuko Nippoda, MA, a UKCP psychotherapist.

Nippoda continues, "They may believe that if they seek professional help they will be diagnosed with a condition, they don’t wish to admit even to themselves, or feel they don’t have the strength or discipline to face. They might have a fear that hospitals, social services, or even the police, might be involved. They need tremendous courage to ask for formal help, and in many cases, they may only decide to seek formal help, or even be forced to get help, when their life becomes catastrophic.”

It’s also only been relatively recently that substance use disorders have begun to be treated as part of mainstream healthcare too. Often, they were considered to be something best managed within the family, school, or church, something that would be detrimental to the welfare of those with substance use disorders.

While this has changed over time, the current healthcare system is not best equipped to handle substance use disorders. Things began to change with the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the Affordable Care Act 2010 in terms of incorporating the treatment of substance use disorders into general healthcare, but it’s still not easy for everyone with substance use disorders to get treatment.

Why is TikTok So Appealing?

As a result, some people have started looking elsewhere—including on social media. While the TikTok videos they’re watching aren’t treatment in themselves, it’s evident that people are providing people with some solace.

With the stigma surrounding substance use disorders, people who might not feel able to talk to their loved ones about their condition might find a sense of community on social media, and people who can relate to what they’re going through. This is perhaps particularly true when it comes to younger people—the TikTok target demographic—who may be watching their peers using substances and, because of their recovery, feeling left out. They can connect, albeit virtually, to other people in the same position. 

Joanne Hipplewith, BSc, MSc, MA

We can learn a great deal about the relationship between the addiction to the person and the person to the addiction, in observing these moments of need and support with mediums of choice (such as TikTok).

— Joanne Hipplewith, BSc, MSc, MA

Nippoda says, “TikTok is easy to use with short videos, so people can watch them without losing concentration. Videos are also made with focused editing, so the message is quite clear, punchy, and easy to understand. Substance recovery-focused TikTok videos are made by mental health professionals or people who have experienced the problems themselves who explain how they recovered successfully."

Nippodas explains that viewers can get first-hand information on how people achieved recovery, which can be highly encouraging to the individual who wants to stop using. Recovery-focused videos can be utilized as a self-help method by enabling people to work on their issues on a personal level, without disclosing their embarrassment to others.

Social media platforms have often come under fire for their relationship to mental health content. For example, Facebook and Instagram have been criticized for a lack of regulation over self-harm and suicide content and TikTok itself has been under fire for pro-eating disorder content on the platform.

However, those TikTok videos analyzed in the study appear not to promote substance use but to chart the progress of people with substance use disorder in such a way that might not always be positive but is authentic; something that people can identify with and relate to. 

What Professionals Can Do

Some mental health professionals are using TikTok themselves, but what can professionals learn from the popularity of these videos when it comes to helping people with a substance use disorder?

According to Joanne Hipplewith, BSc, MSc, MA and UKCP psychotherapist, “We can learn a great deal about the relationship between the addiction to the person and the person to the addiction, in observing these moments of need and support with mediums of choice (such as TikTok)."

Nippoda adds, “It is important for people with substance use disorder to have willpower. Substance use disorder can cause detrimental effects in many areas of their life and most people have experienced failure in giving up their substance use, which can also affect their mental health.

"TikTok videos can give hope, empowerment, and encouragement, and professionals can take advantage of this positive mindset that these videos can help people achieve their goals even if they still have a fear of failure.” 

What This Means For You

Substance use disorder can be difficult to deal with, but there is help out there. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

 

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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