Instagram isn't the first social media platform you'd go to for serious therapeutic advice. It is, after all, the one most frequently accused of encouraging poor mental health: in 2017, for instance, one study found that Instagram was the "worst social media platform when it comes to its impact on young people's mental health"; others have suggested that images of celebrities, influencers and peers can have a significantly negative effect on mood and body image. Earlier this year, the platform even announced that it would be hiding post likes to "remove pressure" from users.
Still, an increasing number of therapists are using the platform to promote their practice and share their learnings – and users are lapping it up.
"There's been a rise in therapists and psychologists on Instagram, not just a rise in their popularity," says Dr Sophie Mort. Otherwise known as Dr Soph, Mort is a clinical psychologist who has a masters in neuroscience and a doctorate in clinical psychology. When she started her now popular account in early 2018 she saw "very few therapists out there". But, over the last year, "the number of therapists joining the conversation and sharing their knowledge has increased".
As with so many social media trends, the rise of the Insta-therapist started in the US. Accounts like Dr Nicole LePera (better known as the Holistic Psychologist), Lisa Olivera and Whitney Hawkins may have started small, but they've since racked up hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans (LePera and Olivera both declined to comment for this story). Posts on boundaries in relationships, processing emotion and healing sit atop thousands of comments, lively discussions and often incredible displays of vulnerability.
So why the sudden rise in interest? Mort believes we're living in a time where "people are looking to understand themselves more than ever before", pointing to the 20 percent increase in sales of self-help books.
"These therapists normalise emotions, distress and vulnerability... they make it feel safe to think about what it is to be a human in the world right now. And they share simple tools that are known to promote soothing and wellbeing, that people can start using immediately and at no cost."
Most therapists posting on Instagram do note that it's not the same as a real-life connection: Whitney Hawkins even compared the two in a post captioned "Instagram is not therapy. Duh." Mort points out that therapy is a relationship: "a space between two people where you talk in a nuanced way about the life experiences of the client".
"It's a place where the therapist holds your mind in their mind," she says. "And Instagram does none of that. It’s not a replacement for therapy or for community and relationships in real life."
The fact LePera describes her followers as "self healers", however, is somewhat telling. Her point, presumably, is that we all have the capacity to resolve some of our own anxieties and traumas, something most therapists or psychologists would not disagree with. And though some followers may be in therapy, others embarking on journeys of "self-healing" are likely to have no support at all – except, of course, for Instagram.
But, as Mort says, Instagram is not therapy and never could be: it's not personalised, the same kind of relationship can't be established and, crucially, it's public. Whilst therapists might be aware of these limitations when they share their posts, it's harder to say whether their followers are too – something evidenced by the type of incredibly personal comments often left under posts.
Mort says that many of the Instagram therapists she knows are aware of such vulnerabilities and actively plan around them – they let followers know the "limitations of the platform", signposting other resources or sending a standardised DM response explaining that individualised support can't be offered online.
She also notes that her own community is "hugely supportive" – when followers have disclosed personal information on her feed, she says, others have rallied around them. This is all well and good – community can be important when you're struggling with a mental health problem or difficult situation – but while an account’s community might seem cosy when you’re in it, it doesn’t change the fact that every comment is completely public.
Myira Khan, governor at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, also cautions against the accounts. She believes therapists need to be "really responsible" when they post on social media, especially when interacting with vulnerable people: "The space we’re occupying is still very public. When people are commenting or interacting, we have to manage that in a way that is ethical and responsible. Someone might feel vulnerable and exposed [when they post a comment]. But we cannot perpetuate that or encourage further disclosure."
Regulation seems like the easy answer here – a set of guidelines that explain to therapists what they can and cannot do on social media.
But it's trickier than it might seem. Khan points out that the profession itself is not currently subject to statutory regulation, meaning it's "very difficult to put a duty on what therapists can and cannot do on social media". She suggests that therapists create their own ethical guide to social media – the same kind they’d abide by in the practice room.
"There is an individual ethical responsibility for therapists putting content out there," she says. "We cannot do anything that breaks our own ethical standards."
Mort looks at Instagram as a learning tool. "I wanted to get information out into the world that would help people re-learn about their own experiences," she says. Her approach may be wise. If you’re looking to understand yourself better, learn about psychological concepts or just drown out the noise of your perfect Instagram feed with something a bit more positive, such accounts could prove useful. But for anything more serious? You're better off staying offline.