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Therapy on social media: How helpful is it?

September 2, 2023

Psychological terms are increasingly emerging as trending topics on social media. But how to distinguish between valuable, informative content and misconceptions?

A sad face emoticon is seen on an iPhone
Social media is bombarding us with mental health-related content, destigmatizing the topic. But how helpful is the content?Image: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/picture alliance

No matter which social media platform you use, it's very likely that you regularly come across mental health content and self-help tips in your feed. Even if you're not an active user of any platform, you may find yourself encountering psychological terms in everyday conversations with friends.

Terms such as 'gaslighting,' 'red flags,' 'toxic behavior,' or 'anxiety triggers,' and even clinical terminology like 'narcissism,' 'trauma,' or 'ADHD,' have become hashtags on social media platforms, making their way into daily conversations.

It often seems that mental health is one of the most prevalent subjects on social media. For Halley Pontes, psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London, this may be an opportunity because it means more people are becoming aware of mental health conditions. "This can lead to greater understanding and empathy for those who suffer from mental health issues," he told DW.

The popularity of mental health discussion on social media is also "a sign that people prefer to be more open and direct when it comes to discussing mental health issues, rather than hiding it as an embarrassing problem," according to Angelina Hahn, a licensed psychologist based in Hamburg.

Healthcare professionals have also embraced social media as a platform to share content on psychological issues, with their content now reaching millions of users. However, as the boundary between influencers and mental health professionals becomes more blurry, challenges and potentially harmful consequences are emerging.

A 2021 study that analyzed the top 100 TikTok videos on ADHD, or Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, found that more than half of them were misleading. The videos with the most user engagement rates were based on personal anecdotes and contained no call to incentivize the viewers to seek professional help. Only 21% of the selected videos were helpful and informative, most of which were shared by mental health professionals and organizations.

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Getting psychological treatment vs. learning about it

Pontes pointed out that gaining general knowledge about psychological concepts can increase a person's self-awareness and help them recognize patterns in their behavior, thoughts, and emotions, though he added that it also has its limitations and can be misleading at times.

For a long time, Sina, a 30-year-old sales agent who wishes to remain anonymous, grappled with what she believed to be "ADHD or a similar concentration disorder." 

"It’s not like I got the idea entirely from social media, I also read articles from credible sources about the subject," she told DW. However, after being exposed to a constant stream of content surrounding ADHD and attention-related disorders, she began to spot many similarities between what she was experiencing and what was being described as ADHD symptoms. She eventually decided to seek professional assistance, and perhaps even consider medication.

But to her surprise, psychiatrists told her that her focus issues weren't related to any attention disorder. "It turned out that my struggle with focus had other reasons, which I later discovered and addressed through therapy sessions," Sina said.

According to Hahn, gaining knowledge about mental health issues can serve as an initial step in addressing them, but it falls short. "As human beings, we tend to think either better or worse of ourselves," she said. "So if we try to learn about our problems on our own, we may develop a distorted understanding of our issues."

In addition, while learning about psychology provides generalized knowledge, "only a mental health professional that can offer tailored advice, therapeutic interventions, and strategies based on an individual's unique circumstances," Pontes said.

Pitfalls of therapy on social media

Even though social media can enhance our mental health awareness, there may be adverse side effects.

To make their content easier to consume, some content creators might end up spreading oversimplified explanations of mental health disorders. Casually employing psychological terminology can result in misconceptions regarding actual definitions.

"For example, someone might claim to be "so OCD – (short for obsessive-compulsive disorder)" because they like things neat, which trivializes and misrepresents the experience of someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder," Pontes noted.

Seeing others openly discuss their mental health might convince some people that their problem is "a common behavior," so "they might accept the terms as labels that describe them, which might stop some people from seeking professional help," Heinrich Dürscheid, a member of The Professional Association of German Psychologists (BDP), told DW.

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How to distinguish between good and bad mental-health content

Social media algorithms may also amplify unreliable content on mental health. So, how can we distinguish misleading posts and videos from useful ones?

Before deciding to follow an account that shares mental health content, it's crucial to verify the credibility of the sources. "Look up the names of content creators and make sure that you're following trained professionals with valid credentials," Hahn recommended.

She acknowledged that this has become increasingly challenging, "especially since there are a lot of quack psychologists and self-proclaimed life coaches who may present seemingly legitimate profiles on their websites or LinkedIn accounts."

According to Pontes, reliable content on mental health is honest about the complexity of the mental disorders and symptoms, their origins, and even the science behind them. "Be wary of statements that generalize complex mental health topics into overly simplistic terms or suggest that a single solution works for everyone," he said.

He cautions against posts that use sensationalist language, clickbait titles, or make exaggerated claims. "This often indicates a priority on gaining views or followers over providing accurate information," he said. "Be skeptical of claims that promise instant results or easy solutions." 

Dismissal of conventional treatments is another sign to look out for, according to Pontes. "Alternative treatments can be valuable for some, but be wary of content that completely dismisses conventional treatments," he said.

He also said that "sales pitches," should be taken with a grain of salt. He said that as these mental-health terms become trendy, there's potential for them to be co-opted for commercial gain, reducing their seriousness and potentially exploiting vulnerable populations. He said that people should be careful about content that heavily promotes or sells products, services, or courses as 'miracle cures' or 'quick fixes'."

"As the saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Pontes said.

Edited by Ben Knight