The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on people's mental health, especially teens and young adults. However, many are finding help in an unlikely place: TikTok.
The video-sharing app, best known for its dance challenges and viral trends, has become a place for therapists to share important information and connect with people who are struggling. Christopher Gomez, a 17-year-old from Florida, said that he started seeing those posts during the pandemic.
"There are definitely people on TikTok that aren't on there just to get views, there are people there that are actually trying to help the teenage community and they realize that TikTok and these social media platforms are some of the best ways to get to these kinds of people," Gomez said.
Therapist Nadia Addessi has 3 million followers on TikTok. She told TODAY's Carson Daly that she began posting videos at the start of the pandemic because friends and family were reaching out as they dealt with their own mental health. She estimates she's one of more than 100 therapists using the app to connect with others.
"I saw there are so many professionals on there ... And I was like 'I can do the same thing,'" Addessi said. "... I realized 'OK, people are really struggling right now and they really need this information,' so I (will) continue to try to post every single day for a long period of time just to provide that support and those resources."
Addessi said that for the most part, TikTok users, who are usually between the ages of 13 and 21, are looking for ways to "understand themselves," so it can help to let people know that they aren't alone.
"When I'm posting videos about what anxiety is and how to help with anxiety, it's eye-opening for them, and they're realizing 'This is what I'm going through, it makes sense, there's a word for it,'" Addessi said. "Which helps, and I know it helps, because I talk about my personal experiences too, and my personal symptoms of anxiety and what it looks like for me, and I know that causes them to relate a lot."
Addessi said she also tries to offer advice on what people can do to help themselves feel better in the moment, and hopes that these efforts, which she compares to a part-time job on top of her regular therapy sessions, will help destigmatize therapy.
"We're showing the side of therapy that sometimes can be fun, the relationship you build with a therapist, the jokes you can make in therapy," Addessi said. 'Yeah there's ... serious work, but we're trying to show that it really is beneficial and doesn't have to be this scary, negative thing."
Jen Hartstein, a family psychologist based in New York City, said that the "explosion" of therapy on TikTok has "a lot of benefits," but also poses some risks: It can be hard to tell if a user is a qualified, licensed professional. Harstein also said that TikTok therapy should not be considered a replacement for in-person therapy.
"We want to make sure that someone really diagnoses you with what you need, helps you with what you need and gets you the support you want moving forward," Hartstein said. "... TikTok therapy provides amazing information and resources to give us a little bit of a leg up on what might be happening for us. And it really isn't a replacement for in-person therapy, where we can get a deeper dive into what's going on for ourselves and the real coping strategies individualized for our needs."
However, the "simple, easy, palatable format" of TikTok videos does make it possible for people to get some of the support and connection that they need.
"TikTok therapy can provide short information for teenagers that is easy to understand, recognizable and can be potentially very helpful," said Hartstein. "It gives them that like bite-sized piece that says 'Hey, this could be you.' ... It allows them to feel less alone, it allows them to feel understood, it allows them to feel connected to something or somebody, and it might actually help them take that next step to ask their parents to help them get some help, especially for those kids in places where finding help is harder."
How to know if your kid needs help:
Hartstein said that parents should keep an eye out for "yellow flags." While many are familiar with red flags like isolation and disconnecting from activities and loved ones, many of those things have become normal during the pandemic, so parents should look for more subtle signs.
"Is their mood different? Are they not talking to their friends in the same way? Maybe they're not playing the games online that they might have (before) or they don't want to reengage in the world," Hartstein said. "I think the most important thing for parents to remember is not too be afraid to ask your kids how they're doing, but in a meaningful way ... And then sit with them ... and then get to the meat of the problem."
Ella Jacobs, a 17-year-old from Maryland, said that while she thinks Gen Z is "okay with admitting" they go to therapy, TikTok can help make it even more normalized, while also being more accessible.
"These 15 (second) to 1-minute videos are just something that really grasps my attention when I don't feel like watching a whole TED talk," Jacobs said. "... Something that TikTok has definitely helped me with is recognizing the warning signs ... because a lot of the items when I have sought therapy or sought help it's been the result of having a breakdown ... and I would really like that to not have that happen to other people, here they can recognize the signs early on so it doesn't get to a tipping point."
Jacobs, Gomez, and 15-year-old Allanah Riley shared some advice that parents of teens can keep in mind if they want to introduce their child to therapy.
- Introduce it slowly: Riley said that parents should bring up the idea of going to therapy over time, and openly communicate what that might look like. Try going on YouTube to find an example of what a therapy session might look like so kids can get a sense of what to expect.
- Be compassionate: Gomez said that the most important thing parents can do is remember that ultimately, the choice is with their child. Forcing therapy or making it feel mandatory can reduce the positive benefits, so if a child doesn't want to go, see if there is other support they might be interested in.
- Don't stereotype Gen Z: Riley said that parents should try to accept that different things might help kids, like creating art. Instead of dismissing those interests, try to see how they could be a comfort.
- Don't see therapy as a sign of failure: Jacobs warned that parents should never take their child's interest in therapy as a response to their parenting. Instead, see it as a maintenance option to help kids and teens stay healthy.
- Accept that "there's always going to be deviations": Gomez said he learned this advice from his own therapist. Instead of ignoring problems or trying to push them down, kids and parents alike should try to face their issues and try to come up with solutions in a way that works for everyone.