What is the 'card declines at therapy' trend on social media, and why are people sharing trauma on TikTok?

Thumbnail credit: @fleece.blankets via TikTok, @cccatharine via TikTok, @emelyn_idk via TikTok

The phrase “when your card declines at therapy” has opened up conversations about trauma among TikTok users. In a new trend on the app, users describe the hypothetical situation of their payment method getting declined at therapy – prompting their therapist to “give back” the trauma they’ve shared in the session. A less literal interpretation, though similar in sentiment, is the idea of falling back into trauma and undoing progress as a result of no longer being able to afford therapy.

Sharing trauma on the platform isn’t new. This trend, however, appears to give creators the opportunity to share their deeper and at times darker, more emotional thoughts, prompting the question: Is there such a thing as sharing too much on the app?

For Catherine (@cccatharine), the “when your card declines” trend represented the chance to speak on her trauma in a “lighthearted” way and let other women know that they aren’t alone.

“It feels a tiny bit like oversharing but that’s like 70% of what TikTok is already,” she told Yahoo News.

Emelyn (@emelyn_idk) told Yahoo News that she doesn’t consider her video as “sharing trauma.” Even if that was her intention, she said doing so is normal on TikTok.

“I do believe that sharing one’s problems, traumas or grievances can help you heal,” she said. “[Being transparent] to the fact that everyone has issues or trauma is helpful because there are those who are ashamed or maybe even afraid to speak out about their difficulties in life.”

‘People post for different reasons’

In hopes of helping other users on TikTok better understand the trend and its intention, TikTok creator Laura Athena (@lachaffin), who describes herself as a registered nurse in her bio, posted a video explaining it.

“Not everyone has access to getting therapy…not everyone is able to address their mental health, and sometimes this is just a response – to blurt out something that is bothering us or hurting us we’re not healed from,” she says in a video posted on Feb. 8.

“People post for different reasons and may be seeking validation, advice or help,” Athena told Yahoo News about why she thinks some creators choose to share online, before acknowledging that there are both risks and benefits to doing so.

“It’s risky because you ultimately don’t know who you’re sharing with and how they will react,” she said. “I think as long as people identify what they’re hoping to gain by sharing, it can possibly contribute to their healing process.”

Athena added that some sensitive topics addressed in trends like these could perhaps benefit from trigger warnings because viewers might not respond well to the message.

“I think it depends on intent [of sharing],” she said. “This goes back to lack of access to tools to address our mental health, so I think younger generations are trying where they can.”

A 2022 KFF Health News poll found that approximately 100 million Americans have some form of health care debt. In a separate poll, KFF also found that 20% of Americans owe money for services pertaining to mental health. NPR also cited a national trend of relying on out-of-network mental health care as a testament to its inaccessibility.

A silent epidemic

Janet Bayramyan, a trauma therapist and clinical social worker in Los Angeles, told Yahoo News that trauma and the feelings associated with trauma “thrive in silence.” Sharing it on a public forum like TikTok, for instance, has the capacity to be very “powerful and healing” for someone. Despite this, she said, TikTok does not replace “trauma-informed” care.

“Trauma is unfortunately a silent epidemic,” she told Yahoo News. “However, with public sharing, we have to make sure that the audience to whom we share is safe and non-shaming. We can be re-traumatized if we share our trauma online and get non-supportive or comments of shame in the public space. I would recommend being very delicate with yourself when considering sharing about your trauma in any online forum.”

Athena compared the trend to “trauma dumping,” which Bayramyan defines as “the act of sharing one’s traumatic experiences without considering the potential impact on the listener.” This TikTok trend, Bayramyan argued, is not that.

“It doesn't appear to be oversharing, as the creators are not sharing extensive or explicit details about their trauma,” she said. “However, there seems to be an undertone of resentment in that the trauma therapy has to stop when the client can no longer pay for the sessions.”