Social media therapists on Instagram may look like cult leaders

This doesn’t mean that social media therapists are all mini-cult leaders – it means we need to be wary of their potential influence on us. In his book Cultish: The language of fanaticism, Montell explains how the tactics used by modern startups and social media feeds to influence you are the same tactics used by cults, knowingly or unknowingly, such as encouraging extreme devotion to a leader

“My whole crusade is to make as many listeners, including and especially myself, feel as attacked as possible by being exposed to the fact that we are all susceptible to cult influence in some degree,” she said. “Sometimes it seems like people are fanatically worshiping an Instagram therapist or…stanning a celebrity so hardcore that they cut off friends who aren’t supportive of that celebrity.”

Therapists sharing access to information typically kept behind therapy doors or made inaccessible by the “high pedestal of academic literature” mostly have good intentions, she said. Sharing “a moment of comfort or a nugget of wisdom” can help, she says, but it’s important for us to maintain a healthy distance from these influencers and recognize that they are no substitute for real therapy.

Some social media therapists lean on their influencer status by frequently trending, like @your.tiktok.therap1st, @rickflarapist, and @the.truth.doctor. Their marketing acumen makes them one of the first influencer-therapists to appear in a direct search for therapy on the platform – and they can provide useful, digestible mental health content.

Some of the cult potential of these accounts, especially on TikTok, comes when licensed social media therapists respond to comments or stitch together existing videos to “disperse what should be highly personalized mental health advice to a mass audience.” without the full context, Montell mentioned. She said addressing their followers as “you” and talking about specific viral moments on the platform creates a false sense of intimacy.

For example, an influencer-therapist explaining how the “West Elm Caleb” debacle was an example of “love bombing” glosses over the nuances of that situation and relies entirely on various messages stitched together to create a narrative that vilifies a viewer we know very little about, arming their audience with a shiny new buzzword they may not fully understand.

Social media users have taken to the issue of misdiagnosis or self-diagnosis with potentially serious mental health conditions like ADHD and bipolar disorder, especially among TikTok’s younger audience. Now more “malleable” terms like “love bombing”, “gaslighting” and “trauma response” are going viral, and with each new take they lose their diagnostic significance.

Conversations about “trauma responses,” a serious and upsetting issue for people who have suffered huge tragedies, have become a meme on TikTok. Therapists present these terms to the public in hopes of raising awareness, but even if they do so responsibly in an appropriate context, they can be picked up by “life coaches” and disseminated to ordinary people in the hope to jump on the next trend.

Montell told BuzzFeed News that calling someone a “gaslighter” is more powerful than calling them a liar because it’s widely known as something abusers do. For people in abusive relationships, this information can be life changing. For others, it’s just a “thought-terminating cliche” that can complicate interpersonal conflict.

The six therapists who spoke to BuzzFeed News for the story were all aware of their power to influence people in negative ways, and collectively offered some advice for people likely to encounter similar accounts: Be skeptical of words like pop psychology fashion, don’t. Don’t engage in viral “hot shots” from therapists who lack proper nuance, don’t assume any kind of relationship with a therapist you see on social media, and don’t confuse mental health advice for mental health care.

About Deborah Wilson

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