TikTok has become a rich source of entertainment and information, all packed into short-form videos no more than 60 seconds long. And while the social media platform has served its Gen Z demographic with opportunities to democratize information on their favorite topics, it's also proven risky when it comes to creators lacking expertise — particularly when it comes to issues around mental health.
"It's important to differentiate online who's a therapist and who's not, because I think a lot of people are overstepping that boundary," Micheline Maalouf, a licensed mental health counselor based in Orlando, Fla., tells Yahoo Life. "People are posting things about 'three signs for ADHD' or just talking about mental health, but they don't necessarily have the credentials to do so."
Maalouf explains that she was at first hesitant to join the app, as it was best known for lighthearted content around comedy and dancing and seemed to leave little room for serious subjects like psychological issues. She was also concerned about making bite-sized videos about "complex" topics. But after a simple introductory video of her explaining her work with anxiety disorders and PTSD gained over two million views, Maalouf — who now has one million followers — understood the need for conversations around therapy on the platform.
"Right away I was like, I need to do something with this. I can't just ignore the response," Maalouf shares.
Most importantly, she needed to figure out a way to do it responsibly.
"I've seen a lot of really bad information out there and it's scary because some videos do go viral and some people have a lot of followers and they're literally putting out bad information," Maalouf says.
The videos that she's referring to include those by numerous creators who reduce the severity and complexity of mental illness to a few simple "signs" that may indicate the presence of a disorder like anxiety or ADHD.
Also concerned is Lindsay Fleming, a licensed therapist in Illinois who points out that seeking out psychological advice on TikTok is akin to randomly searching physical health symptoms on other platforms.
"People say, 'Never Google your symptoms, because it's going to come up that you have cancer or you're dying,' and that's kind of what I feel like might be happening on TikTok," she explains. "It's like, 'Oh, I have this, I have this, that means I for sure have ADHD or I have anxiety.'"
In reality, Fleming notes that the process of properly diagnosing somebody with these disorders is much more complicated. "So much more goes into diagnosing than just these quizzes that people are taking online or checking a box," she says. "People might relate to those symptoms, but more goes into diagnosing than just that list of symptoms."
When these videos are created without proper sourcing and information, they can even mislead people to believe that mental illnesses only look a certain way — a danger that Shani Tran, a licensed professional clinical counselor based in Minnesota, pays close attention to while on TikTok.
"I do a little bit of education," she says of her own videos. "I had a video on bipolar, for instance, and it talks about how just because someone switches moods doesn't mean that they have bipolar, because that's sort of a societal norm is to be like, 'Oh my gosh, my, my mom went from like angry to happy just like that she's bipolar.' And that's not what bipolar is."
Each licensed professional who has taken to TikTok shares the common goal of wanting to educate people further about mental health and to provide the proper resources for viewers needing support or care. "It's more so to bring awareness," Tran says of her videos. "Now they have the awareness and then they can get the resources to be able to guide them to the right professionals."
The videos also aim to de-stigmatize conversations around mental health and therapy — something that Maalouf, as an Arab-American counselor, says is of utmost importance. "Within the Arab American community or just Arabs in general, mental health is still highly stigmatized. And a lot of the people that follow me, a lot of the younger audience, women that follow me, they'll say something like, 'Hey, I'm feeling depressed and anxious,' or, 'I know I have trauma, I've been through something really traumatic, but my parents don't believe in mental health. My parents don't believe in anxiety, they don't believe in depression, they think therapy is for crazy people. Until I saw you on TikTok, I thought that something was wrong with me.'"
It's just another reason why it's important that licensed professionals are leading the conversation on mental health, sharing information both accurately and responsibly. And while those on the app are still struggling to drown out the noise of people without the necessary credentials, all three therapists have nailed down simple ways to differentiate themselves from lay people within their short videos, even if it's just by identifying themselves as professionals upfront.
Although TikTok hasn't announced initiatives to highlight the information provided by professionals, the app does encourage safe conversations around the topic of mental health. "We’ve seen our community welcome a range of enriching ideas and content, including the rise in informative and motivational videos alongside the memes and artistry," a TikTok spokesperson tells Yahoo Life. "We're humbled that so many members of our community feel safe having open and frank discussions about mental health and work to support an inclusive space where people feel comfortable sharing how they navigate their emotional wellbeing journeys."
Ultimately, however, each therapist hopes that education about mental health will one day be brought to younger generations through schools and community programs so that there's no need to sort through the mountains of misinformation on social media.
"I think we just need to have more honest conversations about mental health, and we need to put systems in place to change what's currently going on and provide more education so that people aren't needing to go onto TikTok to find mental health information — so people have access to it from critical sources from a young age," Maalouf says. "Hopefully, we can leave TikTok and social media platforms for fun."
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