Content Warning: Mention of Mental Illness.
About one in five adults in the US has been diagnosed with a mental illness. Stigma is one of the main factors preventing people with such conditions from seeking help. People struggling with mental disorders often feel embarrassed or uncomfortable when talking about their illnesses. In an attempt to raise awareness of mental illness and reduce stigma, we now regularly see public figures sharing their stories and struggles with mental health on social media, particularly on TikTok.
While other platforms like Instagram and Facebook essentially serve as a highlight reel, showing only the best and most glamorous parts of people’s lives, TikTok encourages creators to post raw and unfiltered content. Although people sharing their experiences of mental illness have been positive for those struggling with a disorder, the content produced on TikTok blurs the line between what a mental illness is and what it isn’t. Children and young adults confuse normal feelings like sadness or anxiety with serious conditions like depression or ADHD. With a significant amount of TikTok content recently focusing on the mental health crisis, we need to address the impact such videos are having on the world’s youth.
A lot of what continues to make TikTok so popular and addictive is its ability to customize each person’s feed to suit their tastes and preferences. While it’s a clever way to keep people occupied, users’ inability to directly control what’s displayed on their screen often leads them down dark rabbit holes. As the user network has grown to include people of all ages and backgrounds, we often find our For You pages littered with variations on very real and intriguing subjects.
Like many of my generation, I am guilty of getting caught up in the TikTok maelstrom. What starts as a short break from studying can quickly turn into hours of scrolling through nerve-wracking videos. While the platform’s sheer addictiveness is astounding enough, the content it publishes should be cause for concern. With rates of mental illness rising, many recent videos have addressed the mental health crisis. But what effect does such content have on children and young adults with no prior mental health issues?
A dangerous trend has begun, with viewers using the content they see on TikTok to diagnose themselves with a mental disorder. As you scroll through our feed, it’s not uncommon to come across videos with headlines like “Five Signs You’re Struggling With Depression” or “If You Have These Symptoms, You Might Be Depressed”. Typically, the compiler then lists symptoms such as: B. loss of motivation to do basic tasks, trouble sleeping, or mood swings.
After watching such a video, the viewer often begins to make connections between the expressed symptoms of depression and things in their own lives. For example, it’s not uncommon for us as students to feel overwhelmed trying to keep up things like keeping good grades, working part-time jobs, and spending time with friends. Sometimes this stress manifests itself as difficulty getting up in the morning or by feeling tired and unmotivated when waking up. While these traits may be consistent with symptoms of depression, they are also consistent with the day-to-day pressures of a college student.
Often people aren’t battling a clinical illness, but are instead dealing with normal emotions that come with life’s ups and downs. With a whopping 22.8% of US adults living with a mental illness, it’s easy to believe that we’re among the 57.8 million people struggling with it; TikTok only adds to these concerns. In a well-intentioned attempt to destigmatize mental health conversations, influencers are also unwittingly promoting it. Content on TikTok leads viewers to falsely diagnose themselves with disorders before they even see or speak to a professional.
That’s not to say that the TikTok conversation about mental health didn’t have a positive impact. When we see our favorite influencers share stories about their struggles with mental illness, we feel more comfortable doing the same. Rather than feeling embarrassed by conditions like depression or anxiety, we may feel more comfortable seeking help. But whether we really need help should be determined by a healthcare professional, not a self-appointed therapist on TikTok. While I don’t think content creators are trying to cause harm through misinformation, they speak to millions of viewers and are unaware of each person’s unique situation. Your experiences with mental illness are likely to be very different from yours.
While it’s important to recognize and celebrate the role that TikTok has played in educating the public about the mental health crisis, it’s also important to stop us from scrolling aimlessly. Information about mental illness can be helpful if deliberately sought; However, the echo chamber created by TikTok makes it seem unusual to have no symptoms. Young people need to give themselves more opportunities to deal with normal emotions before immediately writing off as mentally ill.
Téa Santoro is an opinion columnist writing about college culture and student life. She can be reached at [email protected]