TikTok Becomes a Mental Health Hub by Elsie Ramsey

I was recently made aware that therapists are blowing up on the video sharing platform, TikTok. I easily located a top 10 list of the most influential clinicians’ accounts in Cosmopolitan’s July 2020 issue and urge you to take a look for yourself. Sure, the players have likely shifted in the last year but the rankings are not the point. Instead, in the pages of Cosmo, you can observe the phenomenon in action, within its proper context.

Consider the transformative potential a globally successful platform presents to the anti-stigma movement’s momentum. If you work in the mental health space and remain uncomfortable with the field’s embrace of virtual treatment and other innovations, I have this to say: you did not beat them so now you must join them.

If you are new to this platform, here is why these therapists’ popularity is something we must stop and take notice of. TikTok is often the germinating ground for viral content, a social media taste maker for young people of every stripe. Recently the app has become a vessel for healthy activity like reading books. In 2021, The New York Times reported that viral TikTok videos by young people relating the emotional impact of books on them, tagged with the label “BookTok”, significantly drove sales of literature.

And then there are the therapists.

As I joyously poured over #mentalhealthtiktoks, one account pulled at me with special force: @theshaniproject has over 238k followers and a bio that begins with “Dope AF Therapist”. As a clinician of color, Shani is an especially important member of the top 10 field. We know there is a sizable treatment gap in minority communities, partly because there are not nearly enough culturally competent therapists in the marketplace. Highly visible black therapists, dope AF or not, are something we need to see much, much more of.

The role these therapeutic influencers play is, of course, no substitute for treatment, and that fact is made abundantly clear in each account’s featured content. While exploring, you will see highly watchable snippets of advice about taking care of your mental health and what therapy is all about. Such a playful, light touch is the perfect method of seduction for the average person with no experience or familiarity with treatment or the practice of psychological self care. Scrapping the hard sell approach invites engagement and broadens the tent, which is the ultimate goal for a mental health advocate like me.

Of course the marriage of TikTok and clinical advice is not free from controversy or disapproval from some corners. I can understand these feelings without sharing them. TikTok’s embrace requires a particularly challenging paradigm shift to the established dynamic between patient and provider.

If you have been a participant in the practice of psychotherapy at any point in the last 30 years, as either a provider or client, the idea of a working relationship that places both parties on a level playing field is extremely bizarre. More than just bizarre when viewed as a disruption to the traditional therapeutic alliance. Characterized by boundaries and roles, the clinical dynamic has been a key pillar of psychiatric medical doctrine from its beginnings in the Mid-19th Century.

Now is when we should look to the important lesson COVID taught: the truism that “when one door closes, a window opens”, applied to many of our most fundamental human habits.

Plunging into tele-therapy for over a year went surprisingly well. Some say better than well. Entering each other’s homes and intimate spaces shattered the formalities originally thought essential for effective psychotherapeutic treatment. It turns out they were not that essential after all. I made more progress with my therapist during COVID over FaceTime than I did during 7 years of office visits. There are a number of reasons for that sped up progress but I believe the increased intimacy and informality was significant.

Whether you agree with me or not about the value of pursuing exciting new ways to expand treatment and diminish stigma, it is happening. The era of TikTok therapists and virtual treatment has arrived. There will be no going back because progress changes us from the inside out.

I would like to take this moment to welcome the newcomers into living the “examined life” as psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz calls one which includes therapy.

It is within that thoughtful space that meaning is found and claimed.

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