The Digital Issue

The Rise of Social Media Therapy

There’s a common trend on social media in which people share advice courtesy of their therapist. It may supposedly be a direct quote or paraphrased statement and often comes off as incredibly relatable to anyone on the internet. Maybe the reader doesn’t have access to a therapist or simply needed a mental health pick-me-up. In any case, these posts can give them the little boost and understanding they need.

This trend is just one of many within the increasingly mental health-filled social media world. From Instagram to TikTok, regular people and therapists have become mental health influencers through quick posts like the previously mentioned “my therapist said” trend and detailed infographics and videos providing advice or uplifting thoughts for followers. These accounts range from inspirational to professional in tone and often help accomplish a critical feat: making people feel seen and understood. However, many of these mental health influencers come with no professional training and, even those who do obviously can’t provide targeted advice to viewers.

So, this begs the question, what can people gain from the rise of mental health influencers, and what should they be wary of? The answer is complicated and requires starting with one of the causes for this meteoric rise: the pandemic.

Since March 2020, individuals have collectively experienced isolation and uncertainty at an immense scale. “The pandemic decreased our ability to connect in person, resulting in many people using social media to stay connected online,” says Christina Bradley, MS, C-DBT, an associate therapist at Gateway to Solutions located in New York City. “This proved to be a difficult time for the world, as people experienced anxiety, depression, loneliness.”

By late June of 2020, a study from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 40.9% of people experienced at least one mental or behavioral health condition related to the pandemic, such as an anxiety or depressive disorder. People were—and still are—fearful and removed from so much of the good in their lives. In many ways, the rise of mental health discussions helped to fill a painful void. 

Benefits of Discussing Mental Health on Social Media

One of the most astounding results has been the radical normalization of talking about mental health. With more people experiencing mental health issues and the conversation turning online, the long-held stigma around this critical topic is finally breaking down. “As we see in the younger generations, discussions about therapy, anxiety, and depression are now everyday conversations, and it has become more common to share our experiences and reduce feelings of isolation or other-ness,” says William Chum, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in New York.

In short: Discussing mental health has become commonplace. Ebony Butler, PhD, a licensed psychologist and mental health influencer, notes this shift has created a “coolness” around seeking care.

Ebony Butler, PhD

A large following does not equal credibility, and a small following does not mean less credibility.

— Ebony Butler, PhD

“It humanizes and normalizes mental health just as our physical health, oral health, and eye health have been. People are more likely to reach out for help and get what they need rather than thinking that they have to deal with it all alone,” adds Butler. Isolation could have eroded any chance at connecting over shared mental health experiences. Instead, social media provided an avenue to foster relatedness.

Part of that shift is thanks to the lighthearted and digestible manner in which many mental health influencers share information, says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Jewish Family Services of Greenwich.

This easily absorbed, accessible content has also provided the opportunity for viewers to learn more about lived symptoms and potential diagnoses.

Alongside regular individuals, therapists who share on social media can reap some benefits. “It has allowed therapists to show their more human side so that potential clients can make a genuine connection and feel seen before they even make it to a session,” says Monica Denais, MS, CRC, LPC, a licensed professional counselor, certified rehabilitation counselor, and mental health coach in Dallas, Texas.

Denais, who uses Instagram and TikTok to share mental health tips and affirmations, says being active on social media has allowed her to build a rapport with clients before they come to see her. However, she cautions that mental health professionals must be careful not to overstep boundaries and to always add disclaimers when using social media.

With that in mind, Schiff recommends that therapist posts be “short, sweet and to the point, but also accessible to all communities and perspectives and more generalized. You are trying to get a message across that will resonate with a lot of people at once, and it may facilitate a discussion in the comments. You are not treating any one individual’s particular symptoms but want to provide psychoeducation, help, and techniques that can work for most.”

The Downsides of Social Media “Therapy”

Each person is unique, with their own personal history and complex array of emotions. While social media-featured mental health advice can make seemingly blanket statements about conditions that appear applicable to everyone, it’s far from one-size-fits-all.

As Butler explains, “On social media, I am creating general mental health content that is entertaining and thought-provoking, with the intent to have people engage with it, share it, and remain in my community,” she says. “It is public information that can be consumed by anyone irrespective of their particular mental health issue or need.”

In contrast, Butler’s one-on-one sessions focus on individual mental health concerns and goals.  

Brittany Morris, LCSW

A lot of damage can be done when untrained individuals provide advice about serious topics such as grief, assault, abuse, and other major topics that therapists spend a significant time training for.

— Brittany Morris, LCSW

Chum cautions users may feel helpless or isolated when presented with general information that doesn’t fit their lived experience, even if one post fits many. This distraught reaction may worsen existing mental health issues.

Worrying over not fitting a post’s description is just one way people can feel the adverse effects of—at times—unregulated mental health discussion online. “A lot of damage can be done when untrained individuals provide advice about serious topics such as grief, assault, abuse, and other major topics that therapists spend a significant time training for. It is easy to give out advice from a good place but trigger negative emotions,” says Brittany Morris, MSW, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker at Thriveworks in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Butler stresses a critical reminder that not all influencers have their followers’ best interests at heart, and the information presented may leave viewers feeling further traumatized or confused.

“Influencer status does not equal credibility,” says Butler. “A large following does not equal credibility, and a small following does not mean less credibility.” There is no oversight to ensure information is accurate, leaving anyone with a following to appear credible at first glance no matter what they say.

Butler and Morris caution that some people will misdiagnose themselves or those around them with made up terms.

These posts may also skew realistic timelines on everything from learning coping mechanisms to managing troubling symptoms. “Influencers can make it seem like it’s a quick fix but mental health treatment can be a journey,” says Denais. 

At the extreme, this altered depiction can encourage unhealthy behavior such as strategies to maintain an eating disorder or lose weight faster—posts that can be harmful and triggering, says Schiff. This may involve pushing natural supplements or over-the-counter drugs through a paid sponsorship or sharing a triggering post that leaves the user unsure how to cope.

Research has tied social media use itself to mental health issues. A 2017 survey of students in grades 7 to 12 found that people who spent two or more hours on social media a day were more likely to report moderate to serious psychological distress in the past month and to categorize their health as poor or fair. Students who used social media five or more hours a day were also significantly more likely to report experiencing suicidal ideation than their counterparts.

According to a 2016 study, the negative impact of high social media use extends beyond teens. Researchers looking at young adults found that the most frequent daily and weekly social media users were significantly more likely to experience depression than those who used it the least.

What to Keep in Mind

With the proper caution, it’s possible to lean into the positive aspects of mental health on social media. One of the most critical ways to accomplish this? Pay attention to your source’s qualifications. “Definitely Google these people,” says Morris. “Individuals with active licenses can be looked up in every state. Be wary of individuals who display levels of bias in their advice related to religion, culture, politics, or race relations. Therapists are trained to be aware of their bias and should be working very hard to practice without letting it get in the way.”

While there are beneficial mental health influencers who are not licensed, be wary of any clinical advice they share. These accounts may be better served as places to find inspirational quotes and open the conversation further.

To combat any uncertainty about the validity of an account, Butler recommends asking questions such as:

  • Does the influencer have a website?
  • What are their credentials?
  • What type of work do they do?
  • What gives them the credibility to speak on particular mental health topics?

It’s all too easy to take a mental health-geared post to heart, especially if it’s one of the only sources for similar information. However, these are general statements and don’t reflect how unique each person’s health is. “Audiences should understand that what worked for that individual is not always going to work for another person,” says Chum. “Every single individual has different circumstances that impact our mental health, and it is always best to work with a licensed mental health provider to determine the right set of information and course of treatment that applies to the individual's specific situation.”

With that in mind, though mental health influencers can provide a jumping-off point for exploring different conditions, they are not a source for diagnosis or treatment, says Bradley.

If something absorbed on social media resonates, speak with a trusted loved one or mental health professional. If these resources are unavailable, use trusted entities such as research centers, university health centers, and government-backed entities to explore further.

2 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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  2. Lin LY, Sidani JE, Shensa A, et al. Association between social media use and depression among U.S. young adults. Depress Anxiety. 2016;33(4):323-331. doi:10.1002/da.22466