How TikTok is Changing the Narrative Surrounding Mental Health

by: Brooke Harley

In the past couple of decades, social media has completely changed the world in nearly every way imaginable. It has allowed for connections across the globe, and for everyday people to share a glimpse into their lives at just the click of a button. Even within social media itself there are so many different platforms, expectations and trends whose popularity is constantly ebbing and flowing. These changes have added a whole other layer to societal expectations both on and off the platforms. Since this particular blog series focuses on social norms and how they change and differ, I find it only fitting to dive into one of the biggest recent changes in social media. This post focuses on TikTok, and how it has altered the narrative surrounding mental health in both positive and negative ways.

Up until recently, mental health was not a very popular discussion topic. Concerns were only really addressed with the closest and most trusted of family members and friends, or a professional. The struggles associated with mental health and mental illnesses were completely kept to oneself and dealt with in private, and to discuss them publically was seen as a taboo. Social media has been a key player in the shift away from this narrative. Early platforms like MySpace and Facebook provided the space and opportunity to share very casual thoughts and even struggles from the user’s day-to-day lives. Not only did these platforms provide the space, but they also provided the audience. On public accounts, these more vulnerable posts were reaching many more people, some of whom related to struggling with mental health and slowly, people started to find support and community through sharing their struggles online.  Not only did social media provide support for those struggling mentally, but it also exposed others to mental illness in a more concrete and relatable way, allowing for more education about mental health. At the same time, many negative influences on mental health have come out of social media, not only from the bullying that takes place behind the anonymity of a screen, but also regarding unrealistic portrayals of lifestyle and body image. While social media became an outlet for more casual and vulnerable posts, it also allowed for people to create an appearance of casualness and vulnerability that was not genuine, but extremely staged. On top of that, it also allowed for rather unhealthy and unbalanced lifestyles to be portrayed as “normal” when in reality they were promoting behaviors that encourage eating disorders, and unrealistic body “goals” and image. In more recent years, with the rise of TikTok, I’ve seen this frequently on the platform and in my day-to-day life. As the platform continues to grow, creators start to make more and more original content that falls into these categories in one way or another. The four content creators that I will be highlighting in this post each show through their content the ways in which these themes are seen on TikTok every day. 

TikTok features a variety of different genres that aim to help its viewers. From recipes, to home decoration advice, to ways to study more efficiently, there is much to learn from the platform and its creators. One of the most important sub-categories of these tips and tricks are the TikToks created by mental health professionals. Many of these videos contain information on mental illnesses, like commonly overlooked symptoms and characteristics, as well as small tips to help alleviate the burdens caused by the illnesses. They also provide resources for those who want to seek help but either don’t know where to start, or haven’t found a resource that works for them. Two creators that are very different from each other, but both create this type of content are Maggie Lancioni (@therapywithmaggielpc), and Tom Hulme (@mindful_tom).  Lancioni’s content focuses much more on mental struggles themselves, with much of her content highlighting symptoms of mental illness that aren’t discussed as frequently, small ways to combat specific mental illnesses, and reenacting real life scenarios to show what it’s like to live with mental illnesses.  Her page has about 300k followers, and over 2 million likes, so her content is reaching much further than most traditional mental health resources would on another platform. The awareness that her page brings, could potentially not only help someone who is already looking for mental health resources, but someone who is struggling and isn’t sure why. Lancioni’s page is also described in her bio as a “Safe Space“, and the comment sections of her videos are filled with people not only relating to her content, but venting in a place where they won’t be judged. On the other hand, Hulme’s content takes a much different approach to the topic of mental health. The majority of his content contains tips to lighten the burden of certain mental health issues, and words of encouragement for bad days. His page has over 600k followers and over 53 million likes, so while his content isn’t quite as specific as Lancioni’s, the reach is more than double. This type of content doesn’t promote seeking help, but instead offers more advice and portrays a positive message that could turn someone’s day around completely. Both of these creators, as different as their content is, contribute to the changing and improving narrative surrounding mental health on social media and in real life. By creating safe spaces, and encouraging reminders, they are normalizing and working to improve the reality that is living with a mental illness.

In a stark contrast to the uplifting and positive side of TikTok that aims to improve mental health issues, there is a very different side of TikTok that normalizes unhealthy, imbalanced lifestyles aesthetically disguised as “Wellness Lifestyles“. This category of creators often make videos that show a peek into their day, including everything from what they eat, to what they do, to what they are wearing. While the videos are supposed to seem like an authentic peek into an inspirational way of life, they are often unrealistic, highly curated and edited, and leave the viewer feeling less than for not being able to maintain a similar lifestyle. Two accounts that I’ve found showcase this concept well are are Sophia (@wellbysophia)  and Lexi Shadle (@lexishadle).Sophia’s content is less overtly problematic than Shadle’s, but still promotes an unrealistic view of what a healthy life looks like. Many of her videos include clips of her “healthy girl lifestyle” that feature aesthetically pleasing shots of skimpy matching workout sets, a perfectly clean apartment, fresh fruit, and working out. These oversimplified images of what it means to be “healthy” don’t look like a day in the life of an average person, and this leads many people to have a negative self-image because of their inability to perfectly recreate the “healthy” lifestyle. This being said, there are few things more harmful to self-image than the accounts that focus solely on losing weight and being thin, each micro and macro included. Shadle’s account features content that revolves solely around the lifestyle of losing weight and staying skinny, including videos with recipes that are “macro friendly”, including calorie content and how to stick to your weight loss routine during the holidays. Her account has over 58k followers and 1.5 million likes, promoting a lifestyle highlighting counting calories and working out 5-6 times a week. This focus on staying skinny and keeping track of every single calorie consumed is incredibly damaging to body image and self-worth, and accounts like this are a very large part of why social media is considered unhealthy and detrimental to mental health.  Although the content from both of these users varies, the same underlying theme of promoting an unrealistic “healthy” lifestyle exists, and these creators aren’t seen as very big creators who have millions of followers and billions of likes. As TikTok continues to grow, and these kinds of users gain bigger followings, it is clear that the social media mental health crisis could continue to expand, specifically regarding body image. 

The change in narrative surrounding mental health has without a doubt been altered by TikTok. The amount of both positive and negative content is astounding, and the resources it can provide are incredible. However, there is still so much misinformation and disinformation on the platform that are presented as facts. As TikTok and other platforms continue to grow, it is vital to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the information presented, especially when it comes to topics like mental health. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: