As I scroll through TikTok, my typical feed consists of people participating in the latest dance trends, cooking tutorials, pranks, and lots and lots of dogs. But, in the mix of my typical content, I came across a mental-health focused video.
Beginning the video with “Signs you have depression,” the creator points to their list of symptoms to the mental disorder — feeling overwhelmed, sad, frustrated, and having sleep disturbances, among others. I scrolled through the comments, and nearly every user shared how they must have depression, as they could relate to each of the signs.
But is it possible that every commenter can truly be diagnosed with this mental disorder? How can social media users determine if they’re seeing reliable content?
To conclude Health Literacy Month, Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, an assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry, shared his thoughts on this TikTok trending topic and discussed helpful ways to combat fact and fiction on social media.
TikTok’s popularity rapidly increased at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, growing 180 percent among 15-25-year-old users in 2020. During this time period, the Kaiser Foundation reported a spike in mental health concerns — about four in 10 adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, increasing from one in 10 adults in 2019. It seems that with the world in lockdown, many turned to the viral video-sharing app for a sense of community.
“If you start talking about anxiety or depression in a public forum, everyone’s going to relate to it,” said Tyler. “Especially over the last year and a half, people were isolated and feeling sad and anxious. They are normal emotions we have all felt at some point in our lives.”
There are more than 18 billion views under the mental health hashtag on TikTok, ranging from users sharing their personal experiences with mental illness to providing tips on how to cope with its effects.
“It’s something positive that is going on. People are talking about mental health more often and openly, and that’s something in the field we are very much advocating for,” said Tyler. “It helps reduce the stigma and allows folks to share more about their health and well-being.”
Health Information at Our Fingertips
While it’s beneficial to have these open conversations on social media, online platforms can generally tamper with your mental state. For example, for teens who may feel uncomfortable with their appearance, feeling insecure and self-critical, scrolling through posts of users showing their best, or even digitally augmented, photos and selfies could exacerbate those feelings, explained Tyler.
There is also the concern of spreading misinformation through these posts. Decades ago, health information wasn’t nearly as accessible as a simple Google search or scroll through TikTok.
“Previously, you had to find books on mental illnesses,” said Tyler. “Now, you can get a fairly accurate list of the criteria a psychologist or psychiatrist might use to diagnose an illness right at your fingertips. However, there is criteria that is intended to be interpreted only by a mental health professional.”
Because of this accessibility, people may post basic information they find online, which can then be liked, shared, and retweeted by others, enabling people to inaccurately diagnose and treat themselves. Although lacking in credibility, this information still offers some benefits for users scrolling through social media.
“While a person may have been feeling anxious or sad, these posts on social media are now giving them the language to better understand how they’re feeling,” said Tyler. “It doesn’t mean they inherently have a disorder, but it allows them to now explore how they’re feeling and figure out ways to cope with it.”
Searching for Credible Sources
In more recent years, social media has taken initiatives to combat misinformation on their platforms.
To tackle any misleading information on COVID-19, TikTok partnered with the World Health Organization, providing a COVID-19 resources tab on its app and including a label on videos with a link to credible sources on the coronavirus and vaccines. Similarly, in September, TikTok included mental health resources as part of its “Safety Center.” Users can explore guides on topics like well-being, eating disorders, and suicide and self-harm, created by expert organizations such as the Crisis Text Line and the International Association for Suicide Prevention, ensuring that users are receiving credible information.
In addition to seeking out these resources, Tyler encourages people to have more discussions with their clinicians about their mental health. Much like how people see their doctor for routine check-ups on physical health, Tyler suggests starting to share how your mental health is doing as a preventative intervention.
“People tend to see a therapist when things start getting really bad. They’re typically at a point where they can no longer function properly and it’s a problem,” said Tyler. “They can check in on things that might be bothering them so they don’t develop an ongoing problem.”
At Penn Medicine, the Psychiatry department and the Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety within the department — along with other centers — provide mental health resources on their websites, in addition to offering general and specialty clinics for a variety of services, treating patients of all ages. In addition, the Time Efficient, Accessible, Multidisciplinary (TEAM) clinic provides psychotherapy and medication management to individuals in the community interested in exploring their mental health concerns.
“We want to give folks legitimate resources aside from people on TikTok. Otherwise, it’s going to be a pretty wild place where people can say anything,” said Tyler. “As we know on social media, with enough people saying it, then people may accept false information as fact.”