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The Rise of TikTok Therapists During COVID-19

How TikTok Became a Safe Space During Lockdown For Destigmatizing Mental Health

"I know this is going to sound silly, but you should look on TikTok." This is a direct quote from my mother, who might not know about dance challenges nor what cheugy is, but when I was feeling tired of my go-to lemon chicken recipe, she directed me to TikTok, proving that there is something for literally everyone on the app. Over the past year, the video format social media app swooped in and took over when everyone needed it most — the knight in shining armor of the pandemic, if you will. The dances. The candy pranks. The puppy videos. The silver lining of the global pandemic and the mental health crisis that followed.

During a time when college students were uprooted from their dorms and streaming courses from their childhood bedrooms, over 500,000 lives were lost, incomes vanished, and human connection was ripped from right under us, we turned to the things that brought us solace and companionship — we turned to TikTok. Whether it was a place to get a laugh in after a long day of work, or where you learned to identify that unrelenting feeling of anxiety in your chest, there was something for everyone . . . even my mom.

Despite launching in September 2016, in the first quarter of 2020, there were over 315 million new downloads of the TikTok app — the most downloads for any app ever in a quarter — and if you think about it, the rise of TikTok came at the perfect time. Society as a whole was obsessed with shows like Tiger King and Love Is Blind. That's where we were at. It only made sense that short-form video content was going to fill the void. But as a consumer, what made this app feel different from the others was the education it provided and the sense of camaraderie it fostered — namely, within the mental health community, both for professionals creating content in the space and for users in need of help.

In January 2021, over 41 percent of adults ages 18 and older reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On any given day, you could turn on the television and see the devastating statistics, the gut-wrenching death toll, and the heartbreaking stories of lost loved ones, but the emotional toll of the pandemic was just as harrowing. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in January 2021, over 41 percent of adults ages 18 and older reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, as compared to 11 percent of adults from January-June 2019. In June 2020, the CDC released a study that found 13 percent of adults reported new or increased substance use due to stress related to the pandemic, and 11 percent of adults reported serious thoughts of suicide in the 30 days prior to the survey. The numbers were highest in young adults ages 18 to 24, racial/ethnic minorities, unpaid caregivers, and essential workers. There's no denying that the psychological implications of the pandemic are going to be felt for years to come.

While social media is not the first place you think of when you're seeking help, TikTok has been a resource and a starting point. Video trends like "put a finger down" have helped users identify if they're experiencing anxiety; and in turn, these conversations have helped normalize what so many young people were going through. These short-form, entertaining videos became an unexpected resource for self-care and mental health habits when baking banana bread just wasn't cutting it anymore.

Now let's talk about the stigmas, like the idea that therapy means you're weak or that asking for professional help means there's something wrong with you. Those beliefs may be deeply held in some families and BIPOC communities. There's also the idea that therapists are the buttoned-up representation of what we've seen on television for years. TikTok therapists dismantled that with each video posted, each comment replied to, and each diverse expert on the app, and that is one of the greatest joys of this platform.

"They're really turning it into an educational platform. They have music playing in the background, and maybe they're dancing, so you're starting to see their personality. You get to know that, 'Wow, my therapist is actually a human being, they like to have fun.'" — Marline François-Madden, LCSW

For Melissa Shepard, MD, a psychiatrist and therapist with over one million followers on TikTok, finding her groove on the app came naturally during the pandemic once she realized there was "such a big need" for mental health support in these creative, digestible formats. "The education piece is really important and is the primary goal of me being on TikTok," she told POPSUGAR. "But another part of it is that mental healthcare is kind of scary, so part of the reason I post so many stupid videos is because I want people to know that we are real humans, too. Part of the goal is reaching that audience who would be intimidated by going in to see another mental health professional so that they can get an introduction to who we are and what we do in the comfort of their own home, in a less threatening environment."

One scroll through Dr. Shepard's profile and you can see exactly what she's talking about. You're not going to find a Dr. Melfi session à la Sopranos on TikTok. You're going to find someone who tells their followers about how lit her Twinkie-flavored coffee was, someone who can help others identify what it is they're feeling in such an interesting, relatable way, and someone who genuinely cares about the content they're putting out for the sole purpose of helping others.

"It's really fulfilling when people say they didn't know therapists and therapy could be so energizing and fun," said Shani Tran, a therapist with over 213K followers on the app. "TikTok brings me so much joy. I have always been a creator, and TikTok allows me to do that. I can dance, act, and educate people on mental health." And technology has taught us that education comes in so many forms. For Tran, that means sharing content like explaining anxious attachment styles with an edited version of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's interview with Oprah. It's compelling, it's creative, and it allows someone to understand their own behaviors in less than a minute.

It's fascinating because unless these TikTok therapists like Dr. Shepard or Tran are replying to a specific comment on their video and addressing someone directly, the advice they're giving to millions of people is general, yet it still feels so personal when they're touching upon shared experiences. "Certainly you don't want to get into giving specific people specific advice, because the information you put out there is not going to work for everybody," Dr. Shepard said. "I try to be kind of vague, and hopefully people will take what they find helpful and leave the rest." Every follower is different, and these aren't her patients, but Dr. Shepard does cater to her audience: "I want them to feel like they can ask me whatever they need."

Whether it was because of roommates, parents, partners or whomever, or simply because of a lack of access, teletherapy wasn't an option for many people, but the country at large was in need of help, and TikTok therapists were more accessible than ever. According to a global report done by DataReportal, as of January 2021, there were 689 million monthly active TikTok users worldwide. That's 689 million people with free therapy at their fingertips . . . and cute puppy videos, awesome air-fryer recipes, and so much more. It's truly an all-encompassing resource.

Author and LCSW Marline François-Madden is not on TikTok herself, but she is absolutely on board with the way that mental health professionals are presenting their knowledge on social media in new formats. "People are making mental health a bit more relatable," she told POPSUGAR. "They're really turning it into an educational platform . . . They have music playing in the background, and maybe they're dancing, so you're starting to see their personality. You get to know that, 'Wow, my therapist is actually a human being — they like to have fun.'" She applauded the way that "therapists are able to be professional, but still be authentic in the experience."

Therapists, whether they're talking to you one-on-one in their office or they're addressing their followers on TikTok, are always aiming for authenticity. Dr. Shepard said her TikTok videos are often inspired by repeated themes and conversations she has with her patients, which explains the genuineness that followers see in her content. "One thing that I found really helpful in making TikToks has actually been my work with my patients, because there really seems to be a lot of themes that come up and things I find myself saying over and over again, and that's oftentimes what turns into the TikTok," she said. "We'll talk about different therapeutic approaches to conflict management or to accepting anxiety, things like that, and I started paying attention to my buzzwords and putting them out there in case there are other people that might benefit."

"We'll talk about different therapeutic approaches to conflict management or to accepting anxiety, things like that, and I started paying attention to my buzzwords and putting them out there in case there are other people that might benefit." — Dr. Melissa Shepard

It's a cycle of betterment — therapists take their knowledge, fine tune it in a video format, present it to followers, the followers take the advice, integrate it in their own lives, and sometimes, they choose to then seek therapy outside of the app. Tran said the most fulfilling part of this work on TikTok is when she gets a message saying "I was able to find a therapist" or "I opened up to my therapist." Dr. Shepard added that it "feels amazing" when a follower writes to her, saying "I saw a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a therapist for the first time because of your TikToks, and I feel so much better already."

"It never fails to make me feel so good," Dr. Shepard said. "You almost feel like you get to go on people's journeys because you see them before and they'll ask you questions, and then they'll tell you, 'I've gone in and seen somebody,' and I think that's the most exciting part. Seeing people put some of that stuff into action, and knowing that in some way you're actually helping them on a larger scale is really, really cool."

Peeling away the layers of an office setting and seeing coping mechanisms for anxiety when you're simply on a daily scroll through your social media app rotation has done so much for the world of therapy. Being able to see that therapists can be chill and get in on viral video trends while offering seriously helpful information is a win-win situation. But like any form of social media, whether you're looking at cocktail recipes or deep-breathing techniques, TikTok is not immune from trolls and cyberbullying; however, it's all about curating your user experience to make the most of the app and make it a positive space for yourself.

François-Madden explained that although many people were on their phones more than ever in the past year, "screen time may not be a bad thing for some people." But you have to be hyper aware of what you're using these apps for. "You always want to ask yourself, 'What is the purpose of me using this? And if I'm increasing my screen time, how is my mental health being impacted by this?' Because yes, we do need to take moments or breaks where we're resting."

She added that we, as users, need to be "mindful of our emotions" when scrolling, asking ourselves if we feel jealous, upset, or left out. "Do you have to mute certain words that pop up on Twitter? Do you have to unfollow certain accounts? Do you have to hide certain people's stories? What is it that you need to do to make sure that your experience online is pleasant?" François-Madden said.

TikTok has a comprehensive set of community guidelines in order to keep it "a safe place for creativity and joy." They have committed to removing "all expressions of abuse, including threats or degrading statements intended to mock, humiliate, embarrass, intimidate, or hurt an individual" and they have "no tolerance for discrimination." That said, while the app might foster a more inclusive and safe space compared to other social media apps, it's all about making the experience the most ideal for yourself. For many POPSUGAR editors over the past year, that meant finding their happy place through different hashtags and interest groups.

"Oddly enough, connecting with fans across my interests on TikTok is really what helped me through the pandemic," Grayson Gilcrease, assistant editor, Celebrity and Entertainment, shared. "Even with some of my more niche interests, I was able to feel less alone because others had posted TikToks describing my exact feelings. TikTok also helped me rediscover my creativity, and I finally got into editing thanks to those ridiculous Marvel POVs and some very tasteful fan edits of Daniel Brühl."

Samantha Brodsky, assistant editor, Fitness, said, "Plain and simple: TikTok has been an emotional support tool throughout the pandemic. It provided laughter that I needed to keep my spirits up, and sharing adorable pet videos or hilarious content from influencers with friends and family also helped keep us connected. I can count on it for a late-night smile!"

For Fitness staff writer Jenny Sugar, it was all about the "funny animal videos (like guinea pigs, puppies, goats, and baby animals) as a great way to get a quick smile on me or my kids when we were feeling a little low." And Maggie Panos, senior editor, Voices, shared that "TikTok has become the (very) unexpected way my toddler and I bond with other families. COVID has meant that she gets very little in-person time with other kids, so we connect with them via TikTok. It's not the same as a playdate with her friends, but at least my toddler gets to see other kids in their element having fun."

The possibilities are endless! "TikTok has been my virtual happy place during SIP," Chanel Vargas, assistant editor, Trending & Viral Features, shared. "In addition to learning a new breathing technique to reduce anxiety and collecting infinite recipe ideas, I've been able to use TikTok as a place to learn about cultures around the world, to be inspired by people from different walks of life, and to pick up new hobbies that have soothed my mind and kept me busy during this stressful time. Even when I couldn't leave my home, TikTok was a place for me to explore the world and get a good laugh in along the way."

Use the app for all the wonderful resources it provides. Interact with your feed. Like the videos that speak to you and the more it will be curated to your interests. Make sure you're noting the certifications of TikTok therapists and trusting licensed professionals. While true mental health work should exist off of social media, TikTok has been a phenomenal starting point during a time when it was desperately needed.

If you are feeling anxious or depressed and need help finding help or resources, call the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (1-240-485-1001) or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (1-800-950-6264). You can also text "NAMI" to 741741 or email

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal ideation or are at risk, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has several resources and a 24/7 lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

If you or someone you know is in need of drug-related treatment or counseling, you can reach the Substance and Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) on its Treatment Referral Routing Service helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).