The last few years have seen a rapid increase in the discussion of mental health online, especially on the social media platform TikTok. You might wonder why it seems like everyone has a mental health condition now. Why didn’t we all have depression or anxiety 10, 20 or 50 years ago? Are all these people just faking it for attention? And is this mental health obsession just a passing trend?
Mental Illness Has Always Been Around – We’re Just Just More Aware of It Now
While the sheer volume of mental health content online might make it seem like everyone has a mental illness now, that’s not entirely true. However, rates of mental health conditions have increased. The latest research from Mental Health America (MHA) found over 50 million adults in the U.S. have a mental illness.
For thousands of years, mental illness was believed to be caused by something religious or supernatural in nature. Cave art from as early as 6500 B.C. show us that mental illness, although not always understood, has always been around.
Why the Mental Health “Trend” Matters
Increased Rates of Mental Health Conditions
According to a 2022 survey from CNN in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation, 90% of U.S. adults believe that there’s a mental health crisis in our country – and they’re not wrong. MHA’s 2023 research on the state of mental health in America found that:
- Over 12.1 million American adults experience thoughts of suicide
- Over 1 in 10 youth in the U.S. are experiencing depression that is severely impairing their ability to function at school or work, at home, with family, or in their social life
- Over half (54.7%) of adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment
- Almost a third (28.2%) of all adults with a mental illness reported that they were not able to receive the treatment they needed
- 59.8% of youth with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment
- Nationally, 1 in 10 youth who are covered under private insurance do not have coverage for mental or emotional difficulties
- In the U.S., there are an estimated 350 individuals for every one mental health provider
With an increase in mental health conditions and a lack of providers and other resources in many areas, it’s no wonder that more people are turning to the internet for support and information about their mental health struggles.
Increased Awareness of Mental Health
More discussion means that those who struggle with their mental health may understand their condition better or be more likely to reach out for help. It also means that those who have never had any major mental health issues are more likely to understand and accept those who do. It’s true that some people are being misdiagnosed (or are misdiagnosing themself) with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety or neurodevelopmental disorders like autism or ADHD, but these conditions really are prevalent – and this increased discussion of them makes more people aware of that fact. Ritika Sharma, who writes about mental health, race and feminism for Medium, says:
“I often hear people complaining about how ADHD seems to be everywhere, that it seems like it has almost become the ‘new, hot thing’ in the genre of mental health. But I think we should think about the fact that maybe ADHD really is very common. So is anxiety. So is depression. And a person cannot just have one or the other.”
Reduced Stigma Surrounding Mental Health
There’s definitely still a stigma surrounding mental health, but because there’s a greater awareness now, that stigma is being reduced. More and more people feel encouraged to speak out about their mental health, both about their problems and how they take care of their mental wellness. For many, that means no longer feeling like they have to keep quiet or just get over how they feel.
Those Struggling With Their Mental Health Feel Less Alone
The mental health “trend” can help individuals suffering from their mental health issues to feel less alone, which is crucial when someone is struggling with poor mental health. Online platforms like TikTok, Reddit and Discord can offer someone who feels alone or confused acceptance and community.
Saying That Mental Health Is Just a Trend Is Extremely Damaging
People who are struggling with their mental health are already a marginalized group. The idea that they’re all “faking it” is extremely damaging, to them and to all those who believe it. When faced with the question of whether or not people fake mental illness because it’s trendy, Sharma said:
“It almost seemed like it [mental illness] was being reduced to a hashtag, or an internet challenge that you should do if you want to seem cool or if it is ‘on-brand’ with your persona.”
She was also reminded of dinner-table conversations with her parents, who would say things like “Only your generation is anxious and depressed, we were fine” or “When I was your age, I was earning and helping my parents, not lying around like you, complaining about being anxious.” These kinds of statements can leave people with poor mental health feeling worse than before.
But There Are Some Dangers in This New Mental Health “Trend”
The Shift From Stigma to Sensationalism
The public perception of mental health seems to have “shifted from stigma to sensationalism.” While it’s great that we’re paying more attention to mental health issues, it can become a problem when these conversations start to romanticize mental illness. This is especially widespread on TikTok, where hashtags like #depressed and #depression will lead you to thousands of moody, black-and-white videos set to sad music. Depression is real, but not everyone experiences it in the same clichéd way. And romanticizing it isn’t helpful. After all, “even sensationalizing stigma is still stigma.”
While some social media posts about mental health and related conditions can be very helpful, others can confuse people with “advice delivered from social media users and influencers who aren’t licensed healthcare professionals.” Misinformation about ADHD is especially rampant. One research study showed that of the 100 most popular ADHD posts on TikTok, 52 contained misinformation.
Laurel Phillips, Associate Clinical Director at Camber Children’s Mental Health Kansas City, sees mental health content on social media from two different perspectives:
“On one side, I see actual clinicians offering really good tips. On the other hand, there are people sharing self-diagnoses.”
There are countless social media posts listing signs and symptoms of mental illness, but these can be misleading, as people experience mental health conditions differently. The self-diagnosis trend is harmful because most of the people on social media who are diagnosing themself with a mental health condition are relying on information from other social media users – and this information has been found to be incorrect about 30% of the time.
However, finding other people who are having the same experiences as you is valuable. If you think you might have a mental health or neurodevelopmental condition based on information you found online, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional to get an official diagnosis. Sarah Jerstad, clinical director of psychological services for Children’s Minnesota says that while online platforms can provide people struggling with their mental health with support and understanding, “the mistake comes in self-diagnosing a mental health or neurodevelopmental condition.” Instead, she suggests talking to your provider about the content you’ve seen online that resonates with you:
“It’s great to bring that to a therapist or a primary care doctor … and to be able to say, ‘I saw this. I really relate to this. Sometimes I wonder if I struggle with this.’”
Mental Health Social Media Posts Can Make Sufferers Feel Less Than
With the increase of mental health content on social media, it seems like everyone has a mental illness these days. This can mean increased awareness, as well as feelings of acceptance and community for those who are struggling. But it can also mean that people who suffer from poor mental health can feel that what they’re going through doesn’t matter. They might think ‘If everyone feels like this, maybe this is just the normal human experience.’
And posts that romanticize certain mental health conditions can make people who are living with a more serious mental illness feel like they’re not supported or understood like their peers who’re living with more “acceptable” conditions like depression or anxiety.
Alex, a 20-year-old student, says that after his psychiatrist told him that he was experiencing bipolar symptoms, “his first thought was ‘ … This isn’t even one of the cool ones.’… I realized [I said that] because I couldn’t remember a single time on Tumblr or wherever where bipolar was mentioned in any way that didn’t basically mean ‘crazy person.’”
The Mental Health “Trend” – Landing Somewhere Between Stigma and Sensationalism
Despite the drawbacks, the fact that mental health is “trending” isn’t entirely a bad thing. Increased awareness means that more people are willing to talk about mental health. But in the future, taking a “more rational perspective when discussing mental health will be more constructive in shaping public perception of mental illness.”
Help for Mental Health in and Around Suffolk, Virginia
If you’re struggling with your mental health, we want you to know that you are not alone. Western Tidewater Community Services Board is your single-point-of-entry for mental health services, developmental disabilities support, and substance abuse services for Franklin, Suffolk and the counties of Isle of Wight and Southampton.
We’re a public, community mental health agency and are dedicated to serving our community members in their time of need. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for help by calling (757) 758-5106 or making an appointment online for same-day access.
Let’s move forward, together.