Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the discussion of mental health on social media. And during the coronavirus pandemic, when professional services halted and people turned online to seek support, socialize and share updates about their lives, the number of social media posts that mentioned “mental health” grew by 80.53%.
With 755 million active users, TikTok is one of the world's most popular social media platforms, particularly among adolescents and young adults.
Its unique format of presenting an endless algorithmic feed of easily digestible, looping videos, each less than three minutes long, has enabled people from around the world to create content that has the potential to reach millions of viewers. While the platform features Vine-esque memes and YouTube-style hauls and is famous for its #DanceChallenge, there is also a wealth of content around mental health. A tag which has amassed over 53.9 billion views.
While creating content around mental health can help reduce the associated prejudices, it also has downsides, such as self-diagnosing and preventing people from seeking further help. And of course, not all content on social media is accurate, and consuming misinformation can be potentially harmful.
But how do you separate useful information from unreliable information? We had medically trained professionals from PlushCare analyze 500 TikTok videos to reveal the numbers behind mental health misinformation on the platform. See the explainer below for a breakdown of how we determined fact from fiction…
83.7% of mental health advice on TikTok is misleading. While 14.2% of videos include content that could be potentially damaging.
100% of the content for ADHD contained misleading information, the most of any condition in our analysis.
Content covering bipolar disorder (94.1% of videos) and depression (90.3% of videos) were also found to be highly misleading.
While experts concluded that 54% of advice contained accurate information, 31% of videos contained inaccurate information.
Only 9% of TikTokers advising on the platform had a relevant qualification, with the remaining 91% lacking the medical training to support those with challenges.
The Numbers Behind Mental Health TikTok
Today, nearly one billion people live with a mental health condition. Yet, relatively few people around the world have access to quality mental health services. In America, people can expect to pay up to $100-200 per therapy session.
Across the pond in the UK, where healthcare is free, The Royal College of Psychiatrists found that 43% of adults with poor mental health say the long waits for treatment have worsened their mental health. And 23% of people have to wait more than 12 weeks to start treatment, resulting in desperate dials to the emergency services. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why people seek help online, where support is free and instant.
TikTok provides a platform where users trust others to be authentic, creating a community where people feel safe searching and sharing. With the highly personalized algorithm connecting users with content that closely matches their interests, what shows up on the ‘for you’ page can have an impact on what people resonate with and come to believe is them.
But our analysis reveals that 83.7% of mental health advice on TikTok is misleading. At the same time, a further 14.2% of videos include content that could be potentially damaging — for example, suggesting medication to combat symptoms without consulting a doctor first.
TikTok Videos on ADHD, Bipolar Disorder and Depression are the Most Misleading
TikTok has previously come under fire for hosting questionable videos that include misleading information about various topics, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and abortion. And content covering mental health conditions is no exception.
Using the three criteria listed above, healthcare professionals at PlushCare deemed that 100% of the content for ADHD contained misleading information, the most of any condition in our analysis. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that affects a person's behavior. People with ADHD may have trouble concentrating, seem restless, and speak or act on impulse.
#ADHD videos on TikTok have now received over 17 billion views, according to the app. At its best, ADHD TikTok can help to reduce stigma, offer community and encourage users to push for a diagnosis and access life-changing research and support.
On the flip side, exhibiting certain behaviors and labeling them common traits or symptoms can lead to dangerous self-diagnosis, could lead to misdiagnosis, and could perpetuate falsehoods that further stigmatize people with ADHD.
We also found that content covering bipolar disorder (94.1% of videos) and depression (90.3% of videos) were also highly misleading.
31% of Mental Health Advice Given on TikTok Is Inaccurate
By its very definition, accuracy refers to how close a measurement is to the true or accepted value. Without accuracy, we cannot guarantee reliable results.
To determine the scientific accuracy of mental health advice on TikTok, our board-certified physicians, who average 15 years of experience and have each trained at a top 50 U.S. medical school, analyzed the content of 500 TikTok videos using the hashtags #mentalhealthtips and #mentalhealthadvice.
Their conclusion was that 54% of advice contained accurate information. This included content from both licensed professionals and content creators. But while information can be accurate, there is ‘no one size fits all’ when it comes to a person's mental health and well-being. It’s important to remember not to assume or suggest that someone displaying symptoms of a mental health condition has the same diagnosis as you or anyone else. A proper diagnosis relies heavily on independent circumstances and should be left to professionals.
The analysis also found that 31% of videos contained inaccurate information, and 14.2% of videos contained advice that could be potentially damaging for some people to follow.
Trauma Advice Is The Least Accurate of Any Condition
It takes years of studying and thousands of pounds in tuition fees to become a mental health professional, depending on your route, degree of education, and eventual specialisms.
Even for those who have spent their lives training to understand mental health conditions, providing the right diagnosis and suggesting the right solutions to help people manage their symptoms can be complex. So, we had to ask: with so much demand on TikTok to provide mental health support, how well does advice on the platform weigh up in terms of accuracy?
Our expert analysis revealed that general mental health and well-being advice is 59.2% accurate. However, advice on ADHD is the most accurate of any condition — just over half (54.5%) of advice was accurate, and 27.7% was inaccurate.
50% of all advice on Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, and Anxiety Disorder was accurate. The percentage of inaccurate advice was 35.7%, 40% and 36.1%, respectively.
The least accurate advice given on TikTok concerns trauma. 58.3% of advice given was inaccurate, the highest of any condition. Perhaps this is because there are different types and causes of trauma, with symptoms varying depending on the individual. Just 33.3% of advice for trauma issues was accurate.
Just 9% of Mental Health TikTok Influencers Have a Relevant Qualification
The demand for mental health content on TikTok has resulted in a new genre of social media influencers: the mental health influencer. On TikTok, these are users whose videos sharing information about mental health and tips for mental wellness have earned them many thousands of followers.
And in some cases, these influencers are mental health experts, such as Dr. Julie Smith (@drjuliesmith). She has a doctorate in clinical psychology, owns a private practice in Hampshire, UK, and has 4.1 million followers — or the Shani Train (@theshaniproject), a licensed professional counselor and therapist based in Minneapolis, USA, who has 474.9K followers.
But not all mental health influencers have the same credentials, and even mental health experts’ content should be seen as educational only and shouldn’t be viewed or used as a substitute for therapy.
Our analysis revealed that only 9% of TikTokers advising on the platform had a relevant qualification, with the remaining 91% lacking the medical training to support those with challenges.
According to Statista, the number of adults who received treatment or counseling for their mental health in 2020 reached 41.4 million. Sadly, the most common reason U.S. adults do not receive mental health treatment is that they cannot afford it.
So, some can’t afford therapy, and those who can might potentially be sharing their practitioner with 70 other adults (based on figures alone, with 557,000 mental health practitioners in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). It’s easy to see why people might seek help from elsewhere. But free doesn’t always mean best.
Only 1% of Videos Contain a Disclaimer About a Lack of Mental Health Qualifications
With a platform to influence millions of viewers from across the globe, TikTok creators have a certain level of responsibility when it comes to publishing content. For example, when working with a brand, creators have guidelines that require them to include a disclaimer that the video includes an AD, a gifted item or is part of a partnership.
The same level of care should be taken when giving advice, particularly when it comes to mental health. Without a disclaimer to say that a creator is unqualified to give medical advice, their opinions and suggestions lack credibility.
From an analysis of 500 videos using the hashtags #mentalhealthtips and #mentalhealthadvice, just 1% of videos contained a disclaimer, which means that 99% of videos do not attempt to mention their lack of qualifications or medical experience. Furthermore, none of the videos encouraged viewers to seek professional support for their conditions.
Leave It To The Professionals
At least one-third of Americans turn to the internet to help diagnose their ailments. And while this could help identify what you’re going through, you could also end up completely off-target.
Consuming inaccurate mental health information on social media can pose significant risks, such as: wasting time reading or watching content with advice that is not tailored to you, spending money on products promoted by influencers that haven’t been proven to work and, most importantly, delaying seeking professional help. If you are concerned about your mental health or someone else’s, it’s always best to seek help from a professional.
For medically accurate mental health content reviewed by our medical team, check out PlushCare’s TikTok.
With a limit of one video per creator, we pulled a sample of 500 videos from hashtags mentalhealthtips and mentalhealthadvice was pulled from TikTok. We collected the total views, total likes and the number of followers for the creator of each video.
We then had the videos analyzed by medically trained professionals from PlushCare. They categorized the videos by the quality of advice, condition, presence of disclaimer, author qualifications and encouragement of self-diagnosis.
Based on these characteristics, we classified the videos as misleading or not, and multiple metrics were calculated. A video was determined to be misleading if it met any of the following criteria:
The video contained advice that was inaccurate or potentially damaging.
The video contained advice, but the individual had no reported qualifications and didn’t provide a disclaimer encouraging people to seek a professional opinion.
The video encouraged self-diagnosis.
The data was collected in July 2022.
PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.
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