The classic vision of therapy revolved around a person on a couch, supine, tapping into their deepest and darkest hopes and fears. A modern-day remix might look like this: a person still on a couch, but at home, scrolling through a constantly refreshing selection of mental-health content on social-media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
Though it may feel therapeutic, experts advise proceeding with caution. As an increasing number of psychologists step into the role of mental-health influencer, opening the door to fame and financial incentives, their posts—on attachment styles or unresolved trauma or whatever else might be the disorder du jour—are reaching millions of people.
There are certainly benefits: “We’re coming out of a time when mental health was very highly stigmatized, and it kept people from seeking treatment,” says Evelyn Hunter, a counseling psychologist in Auburn, Ala. “Social media has removed that in some ways, and normalized the fact that sometimes we struggle.”
It can be difficult, however, to suss out which so-called experts are credible and whether their information is trustworthy—which can lead to misinformation and harmful misunderstandings. “The way information is so rapidly spread on social media can make it difficult to figure out what’s accurate, what’s professional, and what’s expertise-driven,” Hunter says. She stresses that mental-health professionals who are active on social media should demonstrate three qualities: competence, good-faith interpretation of evidence, and integrity.
With that in mind, if your algorithm is feeding you mental-health content, keep an eye out for these red flags.
1. The person running the account doesn’t share their credentials.
Most credible mental-health influencers will be transparent about their training, licensure, and areas of expertise. The American Psychological Association (APA) Guidelines for the Optimal Use of Social Media in Professional Psychological Practice encourage psychologists to routinely update their personal and professional websites, and to monitor the information others have posted about them online and verify its accuracy.
For those of us looking to vet professionals, Victoria Riordan, an Ohio-based licensed professional clinical counselor with the counseling practice Thriveworks, suggests starting by checking the account’s bio. That’s where many practitioners specify whether they are, for example, a psychiatrist, social worker, or something else that perhaps doesn’t require specific training or regulation, like a life coach. They’ll also likely include their area of expertise and link to a place where you can read more about them.
If you’re not seeing much information, search the person’s name online. If they’re legitimate, “they’re going to come up on Psychology Today, LinkedIn, or their own private practice website,” Riordan says. “You’re going to find them via several different sources, not just social media.” You can also check to see if they’re currently licensed, which is a vote of confidence in support of their education, experience, and ethical standards. Start with state licensing board websites or a resource like the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
2. They’re trying to sell you something.
It’s natural for psychologists to utilize their social-media platforms to promote things like online courses and books they’ve written, notes Genesis Games, a psychotherapist in Miami. “But if all their content leads you back to their storefront, that means they’re more concerned about making you their customer than providing quality education,” she says. “There’s a difference between saying, ‘These things are resources,’” and posting exclusively to hawk products.
The APA Ethics Code stresses that psychologists must avoid conflicts of interest. But these can still pop up online when people promote products—say, a supplement that allegedly alleviates anxiety—without disclosing a business relationship. If something feels off to you, trust your gut and do additional research, like Googling the person’s name and the product and seeing what that search yields, Games suggests. Another telltale sign of a business relationship is if the company is routinely tagging the expert in its own social media posts.
In these situations, it’s ultimately up to each consumer to do what feels best, Games says. As a first step, she recommends asking for clarification about the person’s connection to a product, or simply unfollowing them. But maybe you’ve stumbled upon an unfathomable claim or something that really bothers you. “If you think it’s ill-intended or is putting others in severe danger,” you could report the practitioner to the licensing board or college in the state where they practice, she says.
3. Posts are jargon-heavy.
Therapy speak is infiltrating everyday language. Talk about boundaries, repression, inner-child work, attachment styles, trauma, triggers—and much more—is tossed around frequently and casually. This overuse is concerning for a number of reasons, experts say. For one, people who don’t fully understand the terms but see them on their social media feeds might be more likely to weaponize them in relationships to create a power dynamic. For another, in some cases latching onto and incorrectly using certain words “dilutes their meaning,” says Mollie Spiesman, a licensed clinical social worker in New York.
She cautions social media users to keep an eye out for accounts that turn these types of therapy terms into buzzwords. Trust-worthy practitioners “typically aren’t using therapy terms and therapy jargon, because they want to make therapy and mental health more approachable and digestible,” she says. “If someone is trying to seem smarter than they are, or they’re using all these terms that you don’t understand, that’s a red flag.”
4. Practitioners promote self-diagnosis or labels.
A rule of thumb: Never diagnose yourself or others, Spiesman cautions. Social media is often fixated on labels: If you do these five things, you’re depressed—or you’re a narcissist or have ADHD or are on the autism spectrum. That can run counter to the APA’s social media guidelines, which recommend psychologists avoid offering diagnoses, giving advice, “or otherwise behaving as if they were conducting treatment.”
“What I notice with clients and friends is that people internalize these messages so deeply, and they do diagnose themselves,” Spiesman says. “They’ll see something on TikTok and be like, ‘Oh, I have this issue, or my partner has that.’” She now spends time in sessions asking clients to take a step back and reflect on why a specific post resonated with them so much.
5. They interact with clients on social media.
When Jeff Guenther, a licensed professional counselor based in Oregon, started to crave a creative outlet during the pandemic, he launched a TikTok account. Now, about two years later, he’s perhaps best known as his online alter ego—Therapy Jeff—and has accumulated nearly 3 million followers on TikTok and more than 850,000 on Instagram.
Guenther describes social media as the Wild West. He navigates it as carefully as possible by setting rules for himself—like not responding to existing clients who comment on his posts. Doing so could break confidentiality and blur the boundaries of the professional relationship, as the APA points out in its guidelines. “You have to tell your clients that you will ignore them, just like you would if you ran into them at the grocery store,” he says. So if you see a practitioner engaging with someone they’ve clearly worked with? Unfollow—it’s a red flag.
6. They tout one modality as superior to all others.
Therapists are typically trained in a number of different modalities, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), gestalt therapy, somatic therapy, and art therapy. They might specialize in and even prefer one, but they shouldn’t be touting it online as the end-all, be-all, Games says. “Not one single therapeutic modality works for everyone,” she stresses. “It’s not one-size-fits-all.”
Games sometimes notices newer practitioners, in particular, emphasizing a certain treatment as though it’s a panacea. “Let’s say I keep getting content around EMDR, and I think, ‘I need to go find an EMDR therapist,’” she says. “So I try it, and it doesn’t feel good to me. Instead of thinking it’s just not the right treatment for me, I might think I’m the problem, and there’s something wrong with me, because it’s supposed to work and it’s not working.”
That drives home one of practitioners’ primary points about mental-health content on social media: Not every piece of information will apply to every person, so take it with a grain of salt. Therapists on social media are just that: therapists. They’re not your therapist.
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