“Let me out, let me out! This is not a dance! I’m begging for help, I’m screaming for help. Please come let me out!”
Janelle Hettick swings her arms and sways as she mouths those lyrics from an episode of the Cartoon Network show Rick and Morty—the one where mad scientist Rick gets stuck in a vat in his garage and tries to send an SOS message to his oblivious community. Rick’s friends and family don’t understand his call for help, instead copying his frantic moves like they’re a cool new dance trend. In her video, Hettick’s image splits, and now there’s five of her, swinging and swaying and ignoring the desperate mayday call.
Hettick is a social worker, therapist, and content creator, and this is not just another TikTok trend—although she does have more than 100,000 followers on TikTok. She has a serious message to share about mental health. “What struggling teens need: To be heard, to be taken seriously, empathy, support, patience, compassion,” she writes in her video’s caption. “What struggling teens do NOT need: To be shamed, to be invalidated, people assuming this is just a ‘phase,’ to be punished, for their feelings and experiences to be minimized.”
Scrolling through a social media feed and seeing content from a mental health professional like Hettick is no longer unusual, particularly on TikTok and Instagram. They're a new kind of wellness influencer, not here to inspire your nutrition or exercise choices, but to spark conversations about emotional fitness. Most of them aren’t promoting a product, so why have they chosen to be present on social media? Can we really benefit mentally just by following therapists?
Going where the need is
We are in a worldwide mental health crisis, and it was well underway even before the pandemic killed millions of people and cut us off from face-to-face contact with our friends, family, co-workers and therapists. Research suggests that Gen Z, the cohort of people born between 1995 and 2010, is the most troubled generation in recent history, with members reporting higher rates of loneliness, depression, and anxiety compared to generations who’ve come before. Millennials aren’t far behind in noticing symptoms of mental illness. Stress is on the rise and burnout is becoming a more common experience for people of all ages.
The reasons behind the trend are complex, but perhaps it’s not coincidental that the U.S. suicide rate began picking up momentum in 2008, the year after the iPhone made its debut and put social media apps in our pockets, backpacks, and nightstands. Studies have found that using Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others platforms is linked to increased depression and anxiety. On these apps, we are tempted to compulsively compare ourselves to others, seek validation in the form of “likes,” and despair when the response from our peers isn’t what we expected or hoped for. There are nearly a billion active users on Instagram alone potentially feeling these effects.
In the midst of this, therapists who show up on social media are like firefighters dumping buckets of water onto a blaze from a helicopter. They can’t provide the precision, personalization, and relationship-building that are key to success in actual one-on-one therapy, but their posts do still make space in our feeds for moments that aren’t dedicated to comparing and consuming.
“I hear so many people say that my posts actually helped them revisit an old wound, or think about themselves or their life differently,” Brya Hanan told me. She’s a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified family trauma professional who shares on Instagram as @bryahananlmft. “I think as therapists we have a huge privilege and opportunity to support people, get out of that comparison and consumption culture, and educate how people can find real and lasting happiness,” she says.
Hanan began her journey as a counselor in childhood, when she felt a special calling to serve the less fortunate. Graduate school gave her the tools to help people, and she soon started to notice how other mental health professionals were using social media to reach out. “As a therapist and someone who has always been really interested in all things self-help, I naturally have been attracted to following therapists, poets, "healers," and life coaches on social media,” she says. “I was so inspired by their wisdom and how much they generously shared their wisdom in creative ways.” Something was missing, though: a spiritual component. Other than the occasional New Age post, the world of mental wellness on Instagram didn’t seem to acknowledge the soul. Hanan decided to step into that gap.
“I felt called after I became licensed to start my own account and blog and share my own wisdom… I was so nervous to put myself out there, but when I finally did, I was overwhelmed by a tremendous amount of support and so many people sharing with me how much they needed someone who is willing to integrate faith with psychology,” she says. “My goal with my Insta account is to spread a message of hope and compassion… I recognize through my professional and personal experience, how much our world needs hopeful messages and this kind of support for the journey. Although I hope that people will see my content and seek therapy, I recognize that not all people have the financial means or are emotionally, or even physically ready. So I see my account as a way to reach both.”
If you think the temptation to be pulled into social media’s competitiveness wouldn’t affect a therapist, you’d be wrong.
“I personally have really struggled with comparison and consumption due to being on social media,” Hanan says. “When I first started my professional account, I was posting seven days a week and the desire to gain more followers consumed me. I fell into the trap of comparing myself to other therapists. It was so unhealthy! I realized about two months in that although my intentions were good for starting the account, they had not remained pure and true to my mission so I had to rethink how I engage on IG.”
She started by limiting the amount of time she spends on the app on the weekends, intentionally signing off, and nurturing friendships with other therapists to help make her corner of Instagram more collaborative and connective.
“I also stopped putting so much pressure on myself to create the best content or post at the most perfect time… I have to constantly remind myself this is a way to serve, and it's not about glorifying myself—and people will be just fine if I take a few days off, or if I don't do all the right things for the algorithm like make a bunch of reels or post a bunch on my stories.”
Overall, Hagan says, “it's been so encouraging to be supported by and work alongside people with the same mission!”
In spite of how therapists’ posts can serve as moments of rest and reflection, the mix of mental wellness and social media is not without its friction. You could even say that in some respects, the two worlds are fundamentally at odds.
Consider the critical role that privacy plays. Licensed therapists have a strong commitment to protecting their client’s confidentiality. All health care is intimate, of course, but psychological services are on a different level. Counselors can help you probe your relationships, get comfortable with your vulnerabilities, commit to your dreams, and face your trauma. Clients put infinitely more at stake when they open up to a therapist than when they visit the urgent care for help beating a sinus infection.
Professional counselors know this, and they take it seriously. The American Psychological Association’s Code of Ethics, for instance, describes guarding patient confidentiality as “a primary obligation” and describes how psychologists can minimize potential privacy intrusions.
Social media? Not so much. Self-disclosure is still the name of the game, even if Gen Z is valiantly trying to address society’s oversharing problem. One of the keys to going viral is creating emotional resonance and sharing content that hits your followers in the feels… exactly the kind of poignant stuff counselors encounter in their work.
APA’s code of ethics allows psychologists to talk about their cases in public if “they take reasonable steps to disguise the person,” or the patient has given the okay in writing. But some Instagram accounts seem to toe the line.
Take for example Dr. J, @amoderntherapist, who has more than 350,000 followers on TikTok. His account is both hilarious and insightful. Many of his videos satirize common client problems. Whether it’s a frustrated parent trying to get a teen off their phone, or a patient in denial about the quality of their love life, it’s played for laughs. But is it laughing with, or at? The scenarios portrayed are so ordinary that they can’t possibly be about any particular person from real life, so the APA’s code of ethics remains intact. But clients who recognize they’ve brought similar issues to a session could feel a twinge of embarrassment or shame. Perhaps he sees it as an opportunity to hold up a mirror to such patients, a technique sometimes works in support groups where patients encounter others with similar issues, but a global stage is still a different animal.
It’s also the case that not every therapist on social media will promote messages that are mainstream or based on best practices. Dr. Nicole LePera, @the.holistic.psychologist, has almost 4 million followers on Instagram and celebrities showing up in her comments. Her credentials, which include degrees from Cornell and The New School, are impeccable. Her private, fee-based community, SelfHealers Circle, has a waitlist. LePera promotes an unusual approach to psychology based on so-called “ego work;” one of the first steps is teaching clients to name their egos (hers is named Jessica). She puts responsibility for healing directly on her followers (thus her use of #selfhealers) and firmly believes in the power of positive thinking—all straightforward, if occasionally quirky, concepts.
But not everyone is a fan. LePera goes from offbeat to controversial when she urges followers not to bother getting diagnosed and claims that individual talk therapy is actually worthless for getting over trauma (“This post goes against everything I was taught,” she admits). One recent post about gaslighting got an unusual amount of pushback from followers; LePera’s claim that gaslighting is less of an abusive attack and more of an unconscious process, and that victims do it too, stepped on toes. (It’s important to note that even if abusers act unconsciously, abuse is still abuse.)
Acknowledging what it is and what it isn’t
Social platforms don’t regulate influencer therapists in any meaningful way, so it’s up to followers to figure out how to separate helpful insights from fluff. One way mental health pros seek to demonstrate they take their responsibility seriously is by being upfront about the limits of social media. Thus, many therapists’ accounts come with prominent disclaimers like “Instagram is not therapy” or “No DMs.” Brya Hanan makes clear in one of her saved Instagram Stories that followers seeking true therapy should reach out to her for an appointment. “That’s because there needs to be boundaries when we’re using Instagram. I want to protect you, I want to protect myself, and I don’t want to exploit anyone in any way, or to blur the lines at all,” she explains in her message.
“My hope is that I write in a way that people who are not in therapy and are following my content, feel prompted to seek individual therapy,” Hanan told me. “I try to get really deep and stir personal reflection, so that people see their need for a one-on-one relationship where they can be fully seen, heard, and validated... So many people are lonely and trying to bear so much on their own. I think they go on IG and see posts and oftentimes feel empowered to keep handling it on their own, but I am actually hoping that they feel empowered to reach out for help. I want them to see it is okay to go talk to someone and receive support.”
Ultimately, that’s perhaps the greatest contribution that influencer therapists make to our feeds. As we encounter their posts, and the moments of reflection accumulate, it gets easier to consider taking the next step. It becomes clear that there is an army of caring people out there who are trained to listen and want to help. It might be a huge shift to think of yourself as a person who sees a therapist—but it may be easier to imagine taking that leap of faith, if you’re already following, liking, and learning from the counselors of Instagram.