Are there problems and dangers are associated with Insta-therapists?
By Joyce Dignam
As with many professionals in recent years, therapists and psychologists have taken to social media (particularly Instagram) to share their work. They post tools, resources and graphics in the aim of encouraging positive mental wellbeing in their followers. They have been dubbed Insta-therapists, a controversial term that many deem inaccurate. But while the large following of these accounts indicates their popularity, what are the problems and dangers associated with them? Is Instagram the future of therapy? And ultimately, do these accounts help or hinder their followers?
I deleted my Instagram account for a year and a half. I had a terrible relationship with social media and found that every time I opened Instagram; I was asking myself “Why am I not like them?”. These are, unfortunately, not uncommon thoughts to have when you are an Instagram user. When I finally decided to create a new account, I did so under the strict conditions of doing things very differently – I will unfollow ruthlessly, I will limit my time spent on the app and I will follow accounts that made me feel good. When I decided this, I had never heard of therapists on Instagram, but algorithms sent them my way and I am very grateful for that.
I have attended counselling and therapy on and off for years and originally when I started following therapists on Instagram they acted as a top-up between sessions, then as a safety blanket when I stopped going and now as positive reminders, ways of looking at things differently and journaling prompts. I save posts from these accounts in a folder and return to them during tough times and for me, the experience has been extremely beneficial.
I have just finished 30 days of future-self journaling, a tool provided by @the.holisitc.psychologist and will continue daily for the foreseeable. I’ve found that following these accounts allows for information to seep into my daily life, often without noticing. For example, boundaries were not something that were in my vocabulary but now, seeing posts on boundary setting has meant that I instinctively set and respect boundaries and only notice what I’ve done afterwards.
These accounts are positive forces in so many ways. They have made resources free and easily accessible which in itself is a massive triumph. The accounts also work to break down stigma around emotions, healing and seeking help. But that said, there are some things to be wary of.
In a contradiction of sorts, using Instagram to benefit your mental health means using social media more often, something that many people find to negatively impact their mental wellbeing. Many studies have shown that the high use of social media can negatively affect our sleep patterns, our body image and our rates of depression and anxiety. And yet, therapists have taken to these platforms to share their work – surely, there is something wrong here? The work that therapists on Instagram do presumes a healthy relationship with social media.
Instagram therapists present graphics, ideas, and information on areas of mental wellbeing and it is up to the viewer to do something constructive with it. But the problem is that this isn’t always so clear. If therapists on Instagram are a resource for those who have never gone to therapy before, how can we presume that everybody knows how to accurately use this information?
Scrolling on our phones and looking at the information posted on these accounts can feel like we are attending therapy or that we are putting in concrete work towards better mental health, but really, we are doing something entirely different. It is important then, that when engaging with this material, we understand that this is not a therapy supplement and that we must still be wary of the time spent on social media, despite how positive our feeds may look.
Like anything, it can be difficult to weed out the charlatans from the experts. But on social media, it is very easy to create a professional image and to claim to be something you’re not. This is a big danger when it comes to therapists on Instagram and more generally, mental health advocacy on social media. Most legitimate therapists will have their credentials in their bios, making it easy enough to verify. But, since the popularity of therapists on Instagram has spread, there has now been an increase in mental health advocacy and positivity pages.
The problem here, is that these pages can be run by anybody and are easily confused with the professionals. And while these pages may not claim to be therapists and say that their goal is simply to help break the stigma, a very positive goal, this means that seeking advice or mental health information from social media can become dangerous. Information then becomes sweeping and generalised and, more importantly, rooted in a personal opinion rather than unbiased fact.
The Pink Pinkie Project, founded by Irish DJ Sean Daly, is run via Instagram and markets themselves as a mental health service. The page is a source of information and mostly consists of graphics on topics such as “Toxic Friendships”, “Antidepressants” and “The Importance of Self Love”. And while an attempt to break the stigma around mental health and to start conversations around the topic is vital work, I wonder about the legitimacy of the information being given.
Although there is a disclaimer highlighted on the page in which Daly stresses that he is not a professional but does research his information from credible sources, he also says that his personal experiences influence his work and such credible sources are never referenced. Should this page get to call themselves a mental health service then? I am by no means questioning the great work done by The Pink Pinkie Project but rather, asking what does bringing mental health information and care to social media mean? For me, it means blurred lines between professional and personal and a need for not accepting everything we read as fact.
Therapists on Instagram recognise these blurred lines themselves and stress that the distinction between “Instagram therapy” and therapists on Instagram be made. Lisa Olivera, one of the first therapists to bring her work to Instagram and one of the most popular with 382K followers, published an article last July in which she says that “therapists on Instagram are not providing therapy on Instagram. We are not providing personalized care, individualized advice, or specific support”. She says that she works towards breaking mental health stigmas and encouraging self-inquiry and attendance in therapy. In short, therapists on Instagram are not your therapist! While the work therapists on Instagram do is vital, it is not therapy. In fact, many therapists struggle to set boundaries with their followers and often have disclaimers on their profiles, telling followers that they are not in a place to give personalised advice, for free, online.
So, what’s the bottom line? Therapists on Instagram offer support, tools, and resources to learn more about mental health and help to break stigma and open conversations. But, when you bring mental health support to social media, things can get messy. It can be hard to differentiate between legitimate therapists and accounts offering their own personal opinions on mental health and it can also be difficult to approach these accounts in a healthy way.
Everybody will engage with these pages differently but ultimately, the distinction that following therapists on Instagram is not equivalent to attending therapy must be made known. If you suffer with your mental health, while these accounts may be helpful, make sure to seek out professional care.