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25 January 2023

Your therapist shouldn’t be on TikTok

On social media, therapists are turning consultation room conversations into memes. It’s a sinister trend.

By Sarah Manavis

When therapy is going well it is a judgement-free space where you can be truly honest about your feelings and flaws. Your therapist creates a safe environment where you can explore the hardest parts of yourself without fear. The thoughts flow. Walking out of a session you feel lighter, safe in the knowledge that whatever came up in that last hour will remain between you and this trusted person. Which is why I can’t then imagine how it must feel to open up social media later that same day to find your wise, trusted therapist sharing information about your session through the medium of a sassy dance routine, performed while lip syncing along to a Jack Harlow song.

Judging from the volume of therapy videos on TikTok and Instagram, this miniature horror film is a reality for many. This sort of content is rife: thousands of practising therapists are making memes about mental health, coping mechanisms and the specific interactions they have with their clients, gaining millions of views and becoming influencers in the process. Under the guise of education and improving people’s well-being, these therapists turn the conversations of the consulting room into meme-able content.

The content of these videos varies: while some do straightforwardly explain a mental health issue or a method for coping with one – such as what panic attacks are and deep breathing exercises to help manage them – most feature therapists speaking about behaviours they’ve identified in (anonymised) clients, whether specific or general. This can be anything from joking about their clients’ avoidance techniques to criticism of clients “trauma dumping” on therapists in an initial session, the therapist casting themselves as the main character in these interactions. Fragments of sessions are dramatised into a comic skit or ridiculed through a lip sync, meaning therapists are regularly seen commenting on deep personal issues while donning a face-shifting filter or shaking their hips to a Black Eyed Peas song.

Aside from the vapidity and fundamental cringe factor of these videos, the ethical issues here are obvious. Should a therapist ever really be publicly disparaging of their clients, or making jokes about their intimate and private discussions? Some therapists will even act out real moments from a session or a real experience with a client: I’ve seen an addiction therapist acting out the moment she learned her client died of an overdose. While some might argue that videos such as these “raise awareness”, this seems like a paltry justification for content blatantly designed to grab attention through shock value. And yet the 2.9 billion TikTok views for #therapist suggest that the large audiences for this content are unconcerned.

Though many of these videos are merely vain and banal, some are actively unhelpful. Many TikTok therapists seemingly attempt to differentiate themselves in a flooded market by giving counterintuitive and, frankly, bad advice. Others encourage self-diagnosis of a variety of conditions – ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder – based on “symptoms” that are extremely broad (many public bodies, such as the American Psychological Association, have said social media is leading to a spike in misdiagnosed mental health issues). More than anything, these videos are simplistic – the advice offered is rarely illuminating. Videos such as “how to self-soothe” or “this is gaslighting” rehash the basics of well-known topics: a quick Google search would be far more instructive. With incredible frequency, these therapists make the bold suggestion that your problems might be rooted – gasp! – in your childhood. Videos toe the line between counselling and inspirational speaking, doling out shallow and unhelpful self-help platitudes. Struggling with low self-esteem? Have you tried simply not listening to other people’s opinions?

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The popularity of this content follows an increased cultural awareness of therapeutic techniques and a rise in the use of “therapy speak”. Terminology that was once the sole parlance of psychologists and counsellors has become common in a certain way of speaking to people online; other people are “toxic”, failing to “respect your boundaries”, or maxing out your “emotional capacity”.

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The proliferation of therapy content online also comes at a time when private therapy in both the UK and the US is expensive (and in the UK, NHS therapy waiting lists are increasingly long). The bite-sized versions might feel, for some, like a replacement for the real thing. But the rise in therapy media in the last few years – from podcasts to popular TV shows such as Couples Therapy – also suggests there is a particular fascination with popular psychology and other people’s problems as entertainment, one that can veer into morbid voyeurism: a gossipy, second-hand telling of some else’s serious mental health issue. Viral content encroaching on not just therapy, but countless professions, should worry us. The last several years have shown the myriad issues with the rise of influencer doctors, for example, and the increase in people turning to social media as a first port of call for medical advice. The constant stream of these videos has numbed us to how sinister they are.

Each person’s experience of therapy is different. Though I might find the prospect personally mortifying, there may even be those in therapy who would enjoy seeing their therapist rack up hundreds of thousands of views online by cracking jokes about their sessions. But isn’t this where the problem lies? Therapy sessions are complex, varied and unique encounters between two individuals. By flattening these diverse experiences into “relatable”, TikTok-friendly memes, the meaning we might find within them is lost. This micro-genre does little to benefit the client or even educate its ever-growing audience – it merely overinflates the influence, and the ego, of the therapist.

[See also: What online discourse gets wrong about therapy]