If 2019 was the year of the “woke” influencer, the abominable headache that is 2020 is fuelling the rise of a new breed of content creators: psychotherapists.
Mental health influencers with artsy, Instagrammable posts breaking down symptoms of anxiety, depression, holistic healing and ways we can de-stress have been making a difference for a few years now. However, 2020 has seen a new kind of mental health content creator, one that is turning informative explainers into catchy short videos that often incorporate dance moves for maximum impact. One which understands that credibility and authenticity of information is vital but that this doesn’t have to be dull and dreary. One who has insider knowledge but is also backed by a degree.
This 2.0 version of the influencer is latching onto trending tunes and relatable character sketches that are reminiscent of viral videos on Instagram Reels or TikTok. They also often use surrealist social media green screens, on-screen text and augmented reality (AR) filters to deliver bite-sized mental health conversations within 15 to 60 seconds.
As the pandemic and the lockdowns it prompted triggered a mental health crisis, it’s only natural that the isolated millions would replace their social life with social media. Especially as people dealing with intensified feelings of anxiety, depression and OCD look to Instagram and TikTok as a source of escapism, the presence of mental health experts as content creators provides an outlet for them to understand what they are going through.
“Filming a 20-minute video on depression may work for some people, but if I can make a quick 60-second video that thousands of people see as they do their daily scroll on TikTok, it helps plant the seeds that mental health is important for all of us,” Justin Puder, a psychotherapist who amassed more than 130,000 followers and two million likes on TikTok within eight months of the pandemic told VICE.
Though Puder grew up in Ohio without any access or connection to conversations on mental health and therapy, he realised its value after he developed panic attacks when his father was diagnosed with brain cancer. “It was such a life-changing and healing experience for me that I knew I wanted to help others in the way I had been helped,” he said. After a mental health video he made, based on a trend of having your therapist pop-up in situations you may not want to see them, went viral, he realised that young audiences online craved content that expressed the real and flawed side of mental health, while also being relatable to their interests. “I feel like keeping mental health as this uber-serious topic only perpetuates stigma, and may make it less approachable. Being able to laugh at our difficulties can make them more accessible as opposed to shamefully burying them inside.”
Popular platforms like YouTube have always had a community of influencers who open up about their own trauma, depression, anxiety and mental illness. But what sets the TikTok or Instagram mental health influencer apart is their ability to have candid conversations through condensed videos that easily attract Gen Z audiences. Many creators credit Julie Smith, a psychologist with more than two million followers on TikTok, as their source of inspiration for this easygoing, playful way of talking about mental health issues.
Especially as the pandemic derailed our plans and lives, many looked to humour as a coping mechanism. Creators like Puder are now tapping into this absurdist evolution to fight stigma around mental health.
“I keep my videos lighthearted to ensure that people don’t get overwhelmed with mental health jargon. This way, I can remove stigma by normalising conversations around mental health and showing how we encounter it in our everyday lives,” Divija Bhasin, a 23-year-old counselling psychologist from India, told VICE. While Bhasin was finding her footing as a creator on TikTok, India’s ban on the Chinese app in June pushed her to switch her platform to Instagram. “Instagram launched its Reels feature, and I used it to twist trending challenges into topics about psychology and therapy,” she said.
Bhasin’s Instagram followers went from 300 to 13,000 within a span of three months. “While my videos aren’t an alternative to therapy, I use methods I would usually use in a therapy setting to inform young audiences who aren’t able to access psychological help on how to deal with stress, anxiety, and the different types of therapists,” she said. Through her humorous takes and catchy background music, Bhasin is talking about mental health in a country where many deny its significance.
“What these creators have now figured out is to give out the same amount of knowledge and awareness about mental illness, but changing the ‘how’ of doing so,” Arushi Sethi, a mental health activist told VICE. “If I can identify with this [content], I don’t feel threatened by it, so I am more open to accepting help.”
On October 10, World Mental Health Day, Sethi’s mental health awareness organisation Trijog, along with 60 other global companies, collaborated with the World Health Organization and World Mental Health Foundation to create a virtual event that was based on their shared goal: the importance of making mental health accessible through entertainment.
However, Sethi stresses that there is a fine line between raising awareness through humour, and being insensitive, a line which only trained professionals would be able to understand. “As content curators, we have a responsibility of shaping opinions, so we need to be very informed about what we are putting out. If we are uninformed about these issues, but still putting out content around it, we become ignorant,” she stressed. She pointed out that in cases where someone who isn’t a psychotherapist wants to educate their followers on mental health, they should try and collaborate with a professional to avoid discounting the value of trained therapists.
Most recently, fashion blogger Santoshi Shetty was called out for offering to give more than 700,000 of her followers mental health advice for a fee, which she packaged as “love and light” to “help” others on their journey, despite not having the academic qualifications required to do so credibly. While Shetty took down her video, and apologised for asking people to pay for her advice, there have been several cases of unlicensed influencers offering their audience advice on issues related to mental health.
As a trained psychotherapist, Puder finds his balance by ensuring his topics are scientifically backed, but also isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. “People want to know you are human and we are all naturally attracted to real life stories,” he said. “Therapists struggle with anxiety, depression, grief, trauma and all other mental health difficulties as well.”
For Puder, keeping things real translates to making his content playful and relatable. However, many also gain traction by delving into issues they have personally faced. Nadia Addesi, a therapist from Toronto, Canada, is one of them. “I share a lot about my own anxiety and my journey with it,” Addesi told VICE. “I tend to find that people being able to relate to me allows them to connect more to my content and realise that having a mental illness is part of you but it does not define you.” Through her videos, Addesi has been able to help vulnerable young people realise that they can work in the field of psychology even if they’re dealing with issues like anxiety or depression. While she only began creating content in March, she has swiftly grown her follower count to 585,000, as well as gained more than 10 million likes on her videos.
“A major coping mechanism for many individuals is humour and I truly feel we contribute to that without taking it too far,” she said. “I think that professionals pushing this information is very beneficial, and helps create a sense of belief because of the training and education that comes with the profession.”
Puder, known for using sharp wit in his videos, also points out the advantages of engaging Gen Z and millennial audiences through relatable posts on psychotherapy. “It doesn't mean we only laugh at mental health difficulties,” he said. “But the truth is, we need the full emotional spectrum to navigate this life and that includes joy and laughter.”
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