A number of psychologists and licensed therapists are turning to social media to disseminate information in bite-sized forms. The increasing awareness of issues that were stigmatized and unheard of a couple of decades ago creates a sense of belonging among people who share similar experiences. It also helps youth reflect on their personal experiences, create links with what they learn online, and make better sense of their mental health.
However, not everything that we see on the surface entails a positive development in terms of mental health awareness. Despite there being credible individuals on such platforms, the majority of the content we see on social media is made by creators who are at most amateur psychology enthusiasts. Additionally, needless to say, bite-sized information on 60-second videos provides more opportunity for misdiagnosis than actually consulting a psychologist. After all, psychology is not as simple as symptom A + symptom B + symptom C = bipolar disorder. Most of the information dissipated on social media is often baseless or exaggerated, with psychological terms being thrown in like buzzwords used to describe everyday situations. Psychology has become somewhat of a social media trend.
However, with so much information being fed to us on a daily basis, everyone seems to know what PTSD is, and what it is supposed to feel like. Everyone knows the meaning of gaslighting. Trauma, depression, OCD – ask any teenager who spends their nights watching reels and shorts what the terms mean, and I’m sure they’ll have a few words to say. Of course, to say that their explanations of such disorders would be a good representative of what they are defined as in the books of psychology would be a grave mistake.
Insta-Therapy: “Everyone has trauma”
A quick search on Google brought me to a Reddit thread2 where a user asked a question, somewhat to the extent of whether or not everyone in this world is traumatized. Although this came across as ridiculous at first, I was surprised to find that nearly every reply on the thread responded in agreement. This seems to be becoming a common trend.
Insta-therapy3 is a term that has been around for the past few years, most notably since the height of the pandemic. It initially referred to the growing niche of therapists and counselors who would discuss therapy on Instagram but has now grown into an amalgamation of laymen who are self-proclaimed healers, spiritual minimalists, empaths, and any other title used in trending wellness culture. Non-professionals have found a market and figured out a way to profit from the pain of young, naive teens using “healing” as bait.
Insta-therapy, as often criticized by psychologists, is not therapy. In fact, it does not even take into account the interest of the “client”, which in this case, should be their social media audience. The underlying issue is that wannabe influencers have simply crept into the niche as a way to gain fame. However, then comes the question of how they have been able to climb up the ladder without being canceled (despite the great cancel culture boom in recent years). The answer is simple. The “therapy” they provide is what any layman would think therapy is supposed to look like. It is compelling. It gives troubled teens what seems like a safe haven, by feeding them words they want to hear, regardless of whether there is any reality in it. Insta-therapy is known for treating people like children because, well, it is a very simple shortcut to making someone feel validated. To tell someone that their own feelings matter the most, or that they are perfect, are harmful comments that would do nothing but leave an individual hungry for validation. Of course, social media continues to feed such validation.
Returning to the topic of trauma- the idea that everyone lives with trauma, while may be true to an extent, is largely a result of social media therapy as well. This is not to disregard individuals who have actually suffered severe forms of trauma. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Content creators throwing around words like trauma in a casual manner, where every minor inconvenience in life, every minor “mistake” a parent had done during someone’s childhood is labeled as trauma is damaging to the definition of the word itself. A word that was supposed to represent the kind of trauma experienced by war veterans or domestic abuse victims, for example, who have been diagnosed with PTSD, is now being used, say, in the context of a distressing work environment. The argument for everyone being traumatized is that trauma is experienced differently by every individual, and with life being an abusive system on its own, it is only natural that everyone is somewhat traumatized. The argument itself is not invalid- the issue is with the usage of the word. Lumping the two extremes of “trauma” into one category seriously undermines the gravity of the disorder.
This is not a new phenomenon. A few years ago, “highly sensitive persons”4 was the trending term. Buzzfeed5 out of all platforms made infographics on what a highly sensitive person is like, and anyone who barely knew the meaning of the term, but believed they were more introverted than the people around them labeled themselves as an HSP. I have personally known people who talked proudly about being HSPs. But what is the appeal, really? HSP is not a mental disorder. It is a personality trait that was somewhat glorified through social media. They are neurodivergent people who have high sensory processing sensitivity, meaning that they generally have higher sensitivity towards stimuli, positive or negative. Stimuli may be emotional, social, or physical. HSPs were initially mistaken as overly emotional people6, so social media presented them as a misunderstood group of quiet people with a special set of rare skills. Skills such as the ability to empathize with others, often to the extent of damaging their own mental health. HSP became a buzzword. Being an HSP was a matter to get sympathy for. It started to sound like a privilege. Because who doesn’t want to be seen as that wise one who feels for everyone and enjoys solitude? I digress. The point of the matter is that despite HSP not being a disorder, at the end of the day, it is a form of neurodivergence and can pose a risk for depression among HSPs with certain backgrounds. Glorifying a characteristic that could pose harm to an individual dismisses the importance of seeking professional help when they need it.
The Victim Mindset
So content creators provide, and users take it. Why? I believe it has to do with comfort. The internet is a warzone, to say the least. The comment section determines what you should think about a video. Social justice warriors will tear you down for one “wrong opinion” said. Within this warzone of a world, therapy-tok or therapy-gram (whatever it is called) is a safe haven where you’re told all your emotions, all the instances you got offended irrationally, and all the “problems” you have are valid and are in fact not your fault. “We all have trauma, many of us are just highly sensitive, and that’s okay, it’s not our fault,” on the surface, at least, sounds very comforting to hear in the short run.
The reality is, though, and this may come across as harsh to some, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that who you are today is completely shaped by past factors you had no control over. Self-diagnosis through the information you find on social media on issues like childhood trauma is likely to lead to problems in the long term rather than help you heal from it. Social media might give you sudden moments of realization about your own mental health, and that’s okay. But seeking out answers on social media is not the best thing to do if you want to work through your issues. Make sure you find the right sources to educate yourself or consult a licensed psychologist or therapist to help you work through them on a personal level.
But so what?
While writing this article, I had several moments of doubt where I questioned whether it is even worth talking about a topic like this. I am sure a thought or two would have popped into your head that words like “trauma” are simply used as hyperbole for a comedic effect or come on, it’s not that deep. But the more we throw around words without understanding the weight they hold, the faster they lose their meaning. Language evolves, but with mental health still being an unfamiliar topic for many, it is probably not the right time for trauma to become a laughing matter. The effects can be detrimental. After all, we are dealing with serious experiences of individuals that are still not given as enough weight as they should be. There is so much more to be understood about psychology, mental health, and how it should be taught outside a college classroom. As individuals, the least we can do is be more conscious of what we accept and choose to believe.