- Online social platforms have increased visibility and discussion around mental health topics.
- Not all mental health information shared online is necessarily accurate, evidence-based, or even well-intentioned.
- Experts say people with mental health issues may be especially vulnerable to this type of messaging.
Anyone can create a TikTok account.
For the purposes of staying connected with friends and family, this can be a simple and effective tool.
However, as you might expect — or may have already experienced firsthand — this also means that not everything shared on TikTok is based in fact.
The same applies to other popular social platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and X (formerly known as Twitter).
In a new book edited by Jonathan N. Stea and Stephen Hupp, a panel of psychology professionals examines the potential dangers of seeking mental health advice and treatments online, in particular on social media platforms and celebrity sites.
What are the specific dangers, and what can be done to avert them? Here’s what experts have to say.
“I use TikTok and often witness mental health issues being shared and discussed on the platform,” Andrea Tarantella, LPC, NCC, a counselor with ADHD Advisor who was not involved in the book, told Medical News Today.
“I see anecdotal advice and personal experiences being shared that often oversimplify how complex mental health issues are. Individuals then self-diagnose with conditions such as ADHD and autism in the comments section, simply relying on one personal experience posted by the content creator,” said Tarantella.
While personal anecdotes certainly have the potential to be true, experts say they shouldn’t be applied broadly or mistaken as definitive.
Experts also caution against content that promotes immediate results and in particular, those that point viewers to make a purchase. Marketing videos may be made to resemble typical user-generated content.
“Remember that there is no such thing as a quick fix or miracle cure for the complexity that is mental health, and consider the creator’s motivations. Are they trying to make money off of you by having you download an app or purchase a product?”
— Andrea Tarantella, licensed professional counselor
Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a specialist in psychiatry and sleep medicine and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California, agreed.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Dimitriu, who also was not involved in the book, told MNT.
“Anyone looking for hope is prone to misinformation and this is especially true with mental health,” said Dimitriu.
“Because there are so few tests or objective findings (like blood pressure or cholesterol) in mental health, it truly takes working with a specialist to decide when something is off, what to do about it, and how to measure the outcome,” he added.
Self-diagnosing and deciding on a treatment plan based on anecdotal or predatory online information can delay professional help or even cause harm.
“Online mental health misinformation has the danger of sending people down the wrong treatment path, simply because people do not know their alternatives, or the efficacy of a given treatment,” said Dimitriu.
While misinformation can reach anyone, teens and adolescents may especially be vulnerable to this type of messaging.
“Younger users can be more susceptible to this kind of misinformation, as they are still developing the critical thinking needed to distinguish between credible or oversimplified information,” said Tarantella.
The short format that most social media platforms encourage can also eliminate important nuances related to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
“I have seen a complex mental illness reduced to one symptom or solution. Essentially, symptoms like tapping or shaking your legs are put out by a creator who claims to have a diagnosis of autism,” shared Tarantella.
While the content creator in this example may indeed experience this symptom, it’s not enough on its own to make a diagnosis.
Additionally, I have come across ‘mental health hacks.’ I have come across really good tips from licensed professionals who post content on TikTok, but it needs to be said that these ‘hacks’ are just helpful tools and not treatment for a disorder.”
— Andrea Tarantella, licensed professional counselor
Does this mean that there is no place for mental health advice online?
Certainly not, experts say. But a critical eye is always required.
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” Dimitriu cautioned.
“For all advice and recommendations, look who it is coming from and what their training is. Make sure it’s not well concealed marketing for some product or service,” said Dimitriu.
“Also, poke around the internet to review a given treatment or supplement to see if it’s validated and tested,” he added.
It’s important not to use these same social media platforms when seeking out validation but instead use trusted resources, such as the following government agencies:
Tatiana Rivera Cruz, MSW, LCSW, a therapist and clinical social worker with ADHD Advisor who was not involved in the book, told MNT that “the best advice should be to consider professional help. Seeking professional and trustful platforms or in-person services will be the best option.”
“If the symptoms are significant enough to impact your life, your relationships, your ability to sleep or eat or relax, it makes sense to work with a vetted specialist,” Dimitriu agreed.
“If you have questions or concerns about your own mental well-being, it is important to seek out reputable information, reach out to a licensed mental health professional, and utilize your circle of support (friends, family, etc.),” said Tarantella.
Getting help with mental health
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
The book itself, Investigating Clinical Psychology: Pseudoscience, Fringe Science, and Controversies, includes contributions from three dozen authors.
It’s recommended as supplemental reading material for clinical psychology courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
Some experts declined to be interviewed in connection with a book launch.
They noted that a book is not necessarily subject to the same scientific rigor required of a peer-reviewed journal publication.