The Rise of Social Media Therapy

The Rise of Therapist Influencers

The Rise of Social Media Therapy

“Let me out, let me out! This is not a dance! I’m begging for help, I’m screaming for help. Please come let me out!”

Janelle Hettick swings her arms and sways as she mouths those lyrics from an episode of the Cartoon Network show Rick and Morty—the one where mad scientist Rick gets stuck in a vat in his garage and tries to send an SOS message to his oblivious community.

Rick’s friends and family don’t understand his call for help, instead copying his frantic moves they’re a cool new dance trend. In her video, Hettick’s image splits, and now there’s five of her, swinging and swaying and ignoring the desperate mayday call.

Hettick is a social worker, therapist, and content creator, and this is not just another TikTok trend—although she does have more than 100,000 followers on TikTok. She has a serious message to share about mental health.

“What struggling teens need: To be heard, to be taken seriously, empathy, support, patience, compassion,” she writes in her video’s caption.

“What struggling teens do NOT need: To be shamed, to be invalidated, people assuming this is just a ‘phase,’ to be punished, for their feelings and experiences to be minimized.”

Scrolling through a social media feed and seeing content from a mental health professional Hettick is no longer unusual, particularly on TikTok and Instagram.

They're a new kind of wellness influencer, not here to inspire your nutrition or exercise choices, but to spark conversations about emotional fitness.

Most of them aren’t promoting a product, so why have they chosen to be present on social media? Can we really benefit mentally just by following therapists?

Going where the need is

We are in a worldwide mental health crisis, and it was well underway even before the pandemic killed millions of people and cut us off from face-to-face contact with our friends, family, co-workers and therapists.

Research suggests that Gen Z, the cohort of people born between 1995 and 2010, is the most troubled generation in recent history, with members reporting higher rates of loneliness, depression, and anxiety compared to generations who’ve come before. Millennials aren’t far behind in noticing symptoms of mental illness.

Stress is on the rise and burnout is becoming a more common experience for people of all ages.

The reasons behind the trend are complex, but perhaps it’s not coincidental that the U.S. suicide rate began picking up momentum in 2008, the year after the iPhone made its debut and put social media apps in our pockets, backpacks, and nightstands.

Studies have found that using , Instagram, Snapchat, and others platforms is linked to increased depression and anxiety. On these apps, we are tempted to compulsively compare ourselves to others, seek validation in the form of “s,” and despair when the response from our peers isn’t what we expected or hoped for.

There are nearly a billion active users on Instagram alone potentially feeling these effects.

In the midst of this, therapists who show up on social media are firefighters dumping buckets of water onto a blaze from a helicopter. They can’t provide the precision, personalization, and relationship-building that are key to success in actual one-on-one therapy, but their posts do still make space in our feeds for moments that aren’t dedicated to comparing and consuming.

“I hear so many people say that my posts actually helped them revisit an old wound, or think about themselves or their life differently,” Brya Hanan told me.

She’s a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified family trauma professional who shares on Instagram as @bryahananlmft.

“I think as therapists we have a huge privilege and opportunity to support people, get that comparison and consumption culture, and educate how people can find real and lasting happiness,” she says.

Hanan began her journey as a counselor in childhood, when she felt a special calling to serve the less fortunate.

Graduate school gave her the tools to help people, and she soon started to notice how other mental health professionals were using social media to reach out.

“As a therapist and someone who has always been really interested in all things self-help, I naturally have been attracted to following therapists, poets, «healers,» and life coaches on social media,” she says.

“I was so inspired by their wisdom and how much they generously shared their wisdom in creative ways.” Something was missing, though: a spiritual component. Other than the occasional New Age post, the world of mental wellness on Instagram didn’t seem to acknowledge the soul. Hanan decided to step into that gap.

“I felt called after I became licensed to start my own account and blog and share my own wisdom… I was so nervous to put myself out there, but when I finally did, I was overwhelmed by a tremendous amount of support and so many people sharing with me how much they needed someone who is willing to integrate faith with psychology,” she says.

“My goal with my Insta account is to spread a message of hope and compassion… I recognize through my professional and personal experience, how much our world needs hopeful messages and this kind of support for the journey. Although I hope that people will see my content and seek therapy, I recognize that not all people have the financial means or are emotionally, or even physically ready.

So I see my account as a way to reach both.”

If you think the temptation to be pulled into social media’s competitiveness wouldn’t affect a therapist, you’d be wrong.

“I personally have really struggled with comparison and consumption due to being on social media,” Hanan says. “When I first started my professional account, I was posting seven days a week and the desire to gain more followers consumed me.

I fell into the trap of comparing myself to other therapists.

It was so unhealthy! I realized about two months in that although my intentions were good for starting the account, they had not remained pure and true to my mission so I had to rethink how I engage on IG.”

She started by limiting the amount of time she spends on the app on the weekends, intentionally signing off, and nurturing friendships with other therapists to help make her corner of Instagram more collaborative and connective.

“I also stopped putting so much pressure on myself to create the best content or post at the most perfect time… I have to constantly remind myself this is a way to serve, and it's not about glorifying myself—and people will be just fine if I take a few days off, or if I don't do all the right things for the algorithm make a bunch of reels or post a bunch on my stories.”

Overall, Hagan says, “it's been so encouraging to be supported by and work alongside people with the same mission!”

Some drawbacks

In spite of how therapists’ posts can serve as moments of rest and reflection, the mix of mental wellness and social media is not without its friction. You could even say that in some respects, the two worlds are fundamentally at odds.

Consider the critical role that privacy plays. Licensed therapists have a strong commitment to protecting their client’s confidentiality. All health care is intimate, of course, but psychological services are on a different level.

Counselors can help you probe your relationships, get comfortable with your vulnerabilities, commit to your dreams, and face your trauma.

Clients put infinitely more at stake when they open up to a therapist than when they visit the urgent care for help beating a sinus infection.

Professional counselors know this, and they take it seriously. The American Psychological Association’s Code of Ethics, for instance, describes guarding patient confidentiality as “a primary obligation” and describes how psychologists can minimize potential privacy intrusions.

Social media? Not so much. Self-disclosure is still the name of the game, even if Gen Z is valiantly trying to address society’s oversharing problem. One of the keys to going viral is creating emotional resonance and sharing content that hits your followers in the feels… exactly the kind of poignant stuff counselors encounter in their work.

APA’s code of ethics allows psychologists to talk about their cases in public if “they take reasonable steps to disguise the person,” or the patient has given the okay in writing. But some Instagram accounts seem to toe the line.

Take for example Dr. J, @amoderntherapist, who has more than 350,000 followers on TikTok. His account is both hilarious and insightful. Many of his videos satirize common client problems.

Whether it’s a frustrated parent trying to get a teen off their phone, or a patient in denial about the quality of their love life, it’s played for laughs.

But is it laughing with, or at? The scenarios portrayed are so ordinary that they can’t possibly be about any particular person from real life, so the APA’s code of ethics remains intact.

But clients who recognize they’ve brought similar issues to a session could feel a twinge of embarrassment or shame. Perhaps he sees it as an opportunity to hold up a mirror to such patients, a technique sometimes works in support groups where patients encounter others with similar issues, but a global stage is still a different animal.

It’s also the case that not every therapist on social media will promote messages that are mainstream or best practices. Dr. Nicole LePera, @the.holistic.psychologist, has almost 4 million followers on Instagram and celebrities showing up in her comments. Her credentials, which include degrees from Cornell and The New School, are impeccable.

Her private, fee-based community, SelfHealers Circle, has a waitlist. LePera promotes an unusual approach to psychology so-called “ego work;” one of the first steps is teaching clients to name their egos (hers is named Jessica).

She puts responsibility for healing directly on her followers (thus her use of #selfhealers) and firmly believes in the power of positive thinking—all straightforward, if occasionally quirky, concepts.

But not everyone is a fan. LePera goes from ofeat to controversial when she urges followers not to bother getting diagnosed and claims that individual talk therapy is actually worthless for getting over trauma (“This post goes against everything I was taught,” she admits).

One recent post about gaslighting got an unusual amount of pushback from followers; LePera’s claim that gaslighting is less of an abusive attack and more of an unconscious process, and that victims do it too, stepped on toes.

(It’s important to note that even if abusers act unconsciously, abuse is still abuse.)

Acknowledging what it is and what it isn’t

Social platforms don’t regulate influencer therapists in any meaningful way, so it’s up to followers to figure out how to separate helpful insights from fluff. One way mental health pros seek to demonstrate they take their responsibility seriously is by being upfront about the limits of social media.

Thus, many therapists’ accounts come with prominent disclaimers “Instagram is not therapy” or “No DMs.” Brya Hanan makes clear in one of her saved Instagram Stories that followers seeking true therapy should reach out to her for an appointment. “That’s because there needs to be boundaries when we’re using Instagram.

I want to protect you, I want to protect myself, and I don’t want to exploit anyone in any way, or to blur the lines at all,” she explains in her message.

“My hope is that I write in a way that people who are not in therapy and are following my content, feel prompted to seek individual therapy,” Hanan told me.

“I try to get really deep and stir personal reflection, so that people see their need for a one-on-one relationship where they can be fully seen, heard, and validated… So many people are lonely and trying to bear so much on their own.

I think they go on IG and see posts and oftentimes feel empowered to keep handling it on their own, but I am actually hoping that they feel empowered to reach out for help. I want them to see it is okay to go talk to someone and receive support.”

Ultimately, that’s perhaps the greatest contribution that influencer therapists make to our feeds. As we encounter their posts, and the moments of reflection accumulate, it gets easier to consider taking the next step.

It becomes clear that there is an army of caring people out there who are trained to listen and want to help.

It might be a huge shift to think of yourself as a person who sees a therapist—but it may be easier to imagine taking that leap of faith, if you’re already following, liking, and learning from the counselors of Instagram. 


The Social Dilemma: Social Media and Your Mental Health

The Rise of Social Media Therapy

The social media platform Instagram made headlines last year for suppressing s in an effort to curb the comparisons and hurt feelings associated with attaching popularity to sharing content. But do these efforts combat mental health issues, or are they simply applying a band-aid to a wound?

It’s a small step in the right direction, says Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, a psychologist at McLean Hospital who works with youth who experience anxiety disorders, about Instagram’s recent restriction. “Even if you remove the s, there continue to be opportunities for comparisons and feedback. People still can compare themselves to others, and people still can post comments.”

Dr. Lisa Coyne talks to us about the link between social media and mental health

Social media has a reinforcing nature. Using it activates the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, a “feel-good chemical” linked to pleasurable activities such as sex, food, and social interaction. The platforms are designed to be addictive and are associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments.

According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of adults and 81% of teens in the U.S. use social media. This puts a large amount of the population at an increased risk of feeling anxious, depressed, or ill over their social media use.

But what makes users come back for more even when it can literally make them feel sick?

“When the outcome is unpredictable, the behavior is more ly to repeat,” Sperling says. “Think of a slot machine: if game players knew they never were going to get money by playing the game, then they never would play.

The idea of a potential future reward keeps the machines in use. The same goes for social media sites. One does not know how many s a picture will get, who will ‘’ the picture, and when the picture will receive s.

The unknown outcome and the possibility of a desired outcome can keep users engaged with the sites.”

To boost self-esteem and feel a sense of belonging in their social circles, people post content with the hope of receiving positive feedback. Couple that content with the structure of potential future reward, and you get a recipe for constantly checking platforms.

When reviewing others’ social activity, people tend to make comparisons such as, “Did I get as many s as someone else?,” or “Why didn’t this person my post, but this other person did?” They’re searching for validation on the internet that serves as a replacement for meaningful connection they might otherwise make in real life.

FOMO—fear of missing out—also plays a role. If everyone else is using social media sites, and if someone doesn’t join in, there’s concern that they’ll miss jokes, connections, or invitations. Missing experiences can create anxiety and depression. When people look online and see they’re excluded from an activity, it can affect thoughts and feelings, and can affect them physically.

A 2018 British study tied social media use to decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, which is associated with depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance. Social media use can affect users’ physical health even more directly. Researchers know the connection between the mind and the gut can turn anxiety and depression into nausea, headaches, muscle tension, and tremors.

Are you spending too much time on your devices? Learn how to spot the signs of screen fatigue and digital burnout.

The earlier teens start using social media, the greater impact the platforms have on mental health. This is especially true for females. While teen males tend to express aggression physically, females do so relationally by excluding others and sharing hurtful comments. Social media increases the opportunity for such harmful interactions.

Sperling offers the example of a seventh grader whose best friend chooses a new best friend and posts pictures of the pair at the movies or on a weekend trip. “Twenty years ago, the girl may have been excluded from her best friend’s activities, but she may not have known about it unless she was told explicitly,” Sperling says.

In addition to providing young people with a window through which they can view missed experiences, social media puts a distorted lens on appearances and reality. , Instagram, and Snapchat increase the lihood of seeing unrealistic, filtered photos at a time when teen bodies are changing.

In the past, teens read magazines that contained altered photos of models. Now, these images are one thumb-scroll away at any given time. Apps that provide the user with airbrushing, teeth whitening, and more filters are easy to find and easier to use. It’s not only celebrities who look perfect—it’s everyone.

When there’s a filter applied to the digital world, it can be hard for teens to tell what’s real and what isn’t, which comes at a difficult time for them physically and emotionally.

“Middle school already is challenging for students with all of their developmental changes.

As they go through puberty, they’re tasked with establishing their identity at a time when the frontal lobes in their brains are not fully developed, and there is a lack of impulse control.

All of this happens while their relationships with peers become more important,” Sperling says. “It’s a very vulnerable population to have access to something where there is no stopgap before they post or press the send button. I think that’s something of which to be mindful.”

Adults are vulnerable, too. In recent years, plastic surgeons have seen an uptick in requests from patients who want to look their filtered Snapchat and Instagram photos.

A New York Times article that ran in June 2018 features a newlywed couple who nearly separated after their honeymoon.

The reason: the wife spent more time on the trip planning and posting selfies than she spent with her husband.

Sign up now for our webinar series supporting mental health and wellness.

Sperling acknowledges social platforms have positive aspects, such as their ability to allow people to stay in touch with family and friends around the world.

She realizes the potential pitfalls of completely banning teens from sites that have become a part of life for their generation—not just as a way for them to stay on top of recent parties and conversations but often as an expected source of announcements and news.

Still, she says, the platforms have opened a “Pandora’s box” as they continue to evolve more quickly than we can research their impact.

“I think we need to take a step back and look at the role technology is playing in our society as a whole, in terms of people needing instant gratification, staying home and not interacting in the community by going to local stores or to the movie theater,” she says. “Even dating apps can decrease motivation for single adults to approach others in the community if they think they just can connect with them on an app first.”

In addition to limiting s, as Instagram has done, Sperling suggests social platforms consider decreasing mass sharing altogether. They might function more as messaging services by highlighting one-on-one communications. Regardless of how ly social media giants are to change their ways, though, individuals can take control of their own behavior.

Distract Yourself From the Distraction

People aren’t usually motivated to change their social media use by simply hearing it’s bad for them. It’s better for individuals to see what their limits are. It’s probably unrealistic for most social media users to quit completely. However, they can monitor their behavior to see how their use impacts them, and how to act as a result.

Michelle knows this all too well. When she was initially treated for anxiety, her therapist asked her if she was active on social media, and she said yes. “It turns out that a lot of my anxiety and impostor syndrome is made worse when I’m online.

” A person experiences impostor syndrome when feeling chronic self-doubt and a sense of being exposed as ‘a fraud’ in terms of success and intellect.

“Whether it’s another pretty vacation or someone’s bouquet of flowers, my mind went from ‘Why not me?’ to ‘I don’t deserve those things, and I don’t know why,’ and it made me feel awful.”

She and her therapist decided to set ground rules. “If I was to continue using social media, I had to learn what would trigger my anxiety and how using different platforms made me feel,” says Michelle. The result was her deleting Snapchat for good, and after 5 years, she still doesn’t miss it. She’s still active on several other platforms, though.

Sperling encourages people to conduct their own behavior experiments by rating their emotions on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being the most intensely one could experience an emotion, before and after using social media sites at the same time each day for a week. If one notices that one feels less happy after using them, then one might consider changing how one uses social media sites, such as using them for less time and doing other activities that one enjoys instead.

Social media usage can have both benefits and detriments, so it’s important to be aware of how it affects you

A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study suggests that such self-monitoring can change one’s perception of social media.

The study’s researchers looked at 143 undergraduates randomly assigned to two groups.

The first set was asked to limit , Instagram, and Snapchat to ten minutes per platform per day, while the second was asked to continue to use their social media as usual for three weeks.

The limited group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression during those three weeks over the group that continued using social media.

Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out compared to where they were at the study’s beginning.

“I’d love to say that my use is totally healthy, but I find that I’m still comparing myself to others,” Michelle says. “Now I can recognize what’s going to help or hurt my mental well-being. My therapist and I agreed that I’d set limits on my app usage to two hours a day across all platforms. Now I know when it’s time to log off and take care of myself.”

Set a Good Example

Parents can develop a plan of how much time family members will spend on devices. Strategies these teach kids healthy media use and good sleep hygiene.

When teens start using social media, parents can ask them to turn in their phones at night with the understanding that parents can review posts and messages. This helps parents be in the know, as sometimes young people will share struggles online while parents have no idea.

Monitoring also encourages teens to remember that everything they share online is a permanent fingerprint. If they don’t want their parents to see it, then it shouldn’t be posted.

Sperling suggests that some families modify the ways they use social media. Try a “no selfie” policy or a rule that kids can post pictures of tangible objects but no photos of themselves. This way, children can share their experiences without emphasizing a focus on their appearance.

A common argument is when children say they are missing out because of restrictions placed on their phone use—that they aren’t allowed on a platform or can’t be online after a certain time.

“Parents’ frequency of electronics use can set the tone for what is permissible to their children. If you want your children to put their phones down at dinner, that will be more ly to happen if you do the same.”– Dr. Jacqueline Sperling

Sperling tells parents to remind kids that a good friend would find a way to spend time with them. She suggests other ways for kids to talk to one another to keep those feelings of FOMO away and be socially present.

“If adolescents know that they cannot use their phone after a certain time or are not allowed to access a site that their friends use, then they can ask their friends to let them know of any plans made when they see each other at school or call the house phone or one of the parent’s phones so that they can remain included.”

Of course, Sperling says, the way parents are using social media is the model for their kids. A University of Texas review of research on parents’ use of mobile devices while interacting with their children found that mobile use contributed to distracted parenting, an increase of bids for attention when the parents were distracted, and conflicts with other caregivers.

“Parents’ frequency of electronics use can set the tone for what is permissible to their children,” Sperling says. “If you want your children to put their phones down at dinner, that will be more ly to happen if you do the same.”

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