Micheline Maalouf, a licensed mental health counselor and owner of Serein Counseling in Orlando, Florida, started making YouTube videos with inspirational and educational messages in 2018, but they weren’t reaching many followers, and making them often consumed a lot of her time. In 2020, her friend suggested she use TikTok, a video-sharing app well-known for its dance challenges, to educate people about mental health. These videos are short, ranging from a few seconds to three minutes, and she worried she wouldn’t be able to provide helpful information in this bite-sized form. But she decided to try it.
At first, she created a few fun videos, including one that featured her dancing around her office by herself celebrating a client’s breakthrough. Then she decided to make a short video that introduced herself as a counselor and listed her specialties. That video gained her 120,000 followers overnight.
“From that video, I started getting a lot of questions” about mental health, such as how to manage anxiety or what to do if you have a panic attack, Maalouf recalls. “So, I started generating content based on the questions I was being asked.” That’s when she realized the potential this social media platform offered.
Navigating the unknown
Tristan Collazo, a licensed resident in counseling at Wholehearted Counseling in Virginia Beach and Carrollton, Virginia, was taught in school not to add clients on social media, but newer platforms such as TikTok are changing the rules because counselors don’t have any control over who “follows” them.
To further complicate the matter, some counselors are now getting clients based on their social media posts. Collazo says social media has functioned as a referral source for him because a few of his clients found him through his Instagram or TikTok posts.
This is unfamiliar territory, Collazo notes. Counseling programs “taught us all about boundaries,” he says, “but this is so new that it wasn’t even brought up.”
He constantly talks with his supervisor about how to set boundaries around social media, especially for clients who follow him. From these discussions, he has established some guidelines: He makes social media posts, but that’s where his engagement with his followers (and any possible clients) ends. He doesn’t respond to direct messages. He also includes social media in his disclosure statements and discusses it verbally with clients.
Shani Tran, a licensed professional clinical counselor, suggests counselors add disclaimer statements on the social media content they create. She became overwhelmed with the high volume of comments and questions on her TikTok videos, so she joined a group for therapists on TikTok. Together this group decided to create disclaimers stating their online content is educational and not a replacement for therapy.
Lindsay Fleming, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice, Main Street Counseling Solutions, in Park Ridge, Illinois, also creates a clear boundary between her social media presence and her therapeutic one. She gives her clients the option to block her on social media, and she tells them that she will not respond if they do comment on her content and that she will not follow them.
She encourages counselors to make social media a part of the conversation in session. She often asks if clients have seen any of her posts online. If they have, she asks how they feel about the videos they have seen and if any made them feel uncomfortable. This gives them the space to talk and process if needed.
Tran receives daily follower requests based on her social media posts, but many are unaware that they must find a counselor licensed in their state. It’s hard, she says, because she doesn’t like having to turn down someone who needs help. For that reason, she added a link under her profile name that provides her followers with more mental health resources, including ways to find a mental health provider.
She also cautions clinicians against responding to comments or direct messages from people asking for clinical advice about their situation or potential mental health diagnosis. If counselors answer them, they could technically be entering into a therapeutic contract without paperwork, she warns, which is unethical.
Social media allows people “to see therapists before they are in the room with them,” says Tran, owner and founder of The Shani Project, a group counseling practice in Minneapolis. “They get to see what content therapists put out, what their voice sounds like when they talk, [and] how they talk about the different specialties. … They get an inside look into the therapists’ own personal lives.”
Allowing others to see the human behind the professional has benefits and potential challenges, so Ilyse Kennedy, an LPC and licensed marriage and family therapist, recommends counselors still maintain healthy boundaries when self-disclosing. But what these boundaries look like can vary from clinician to clinician.
Kennedy, founder of the group practice Moving Parts Psychotherapy in Austin, Texas, shares her own healing journey to normalize therapy, but she’s careful not to overshare to the point clients may worry she’s unable to do her job. For her, posting about having a glass of wine to calm down after a stressful day would cross a professional boundary because it is an unhealthy coping behavior for some. There’s nothing wrong with counselors drinking a glass of wine, she says, but she feels more comfortable sharing other coping strategies such as watching reality television.
Maalouf also discusses her mental health on social media to remind others that “mental health doesn’t discriminate” and to start a conversation on various resources and support systems that can help. Some of her clients have told her that it’s validating to see she’s also working on her own mental health concerns like they are.
But counselors have to be careful with the information they share and how they discuss this with clients, says Maalouf. A client who once saw a video she posted about struggling with depression asked her at the start of the session whether she was OK and able to see her in session that day. Maalouf reassured the client that she is fully present when she comes into work and that she takes mental health days if needed.
Is social media right for me?
Social media allows counselors to humanize the profession, educate others about mental health and even connect people with the resources and services they need. With all these benefits, counselors may find themselves contemplating if they too should create social media accounts.
“Social media is not for everyone,” Maalouf cautions. “There are people that would love it because they enjoy educating and helping people, but then when they get on it, their levels of anxiety go up because they don’t feel safe enough doing it [or] don’t know how to do it appropriately.” She recommends counselors carefully consider the reason and purpose behind why they are joining social media.
“If the purpose is because you love making this type of content or love educating on a large scale, then go for it,” Maalouf says, “and remind yourself why you’re doing it.”
Here are a few tips for counselors who decide they do want to use social media for marketing their business or as a tool to promote or advocate for mental health:
- Grab people’s attention. If your content doesn’t capture the audience’s attention quickly, you could lose them, Collazo says. He often uses slogans such as “You are not alone” or “Bet you’ve never heard about this before” within the first few seconds of his videos to engage his followers.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. Avoid modeling yourself and your content after others, Maalouf says, and don’t focus on how many followers you have. Instead, focus on your purpose and the goals you want to achieve. She says she’s seen therapists who begin to doubt their own clinical skills because their videos aren’t getting as much attention or doing as well as another clinician’s. “A lot of social media has to do with timing and has nothing to do if you are better than another person,” she notes.
- Develop a thick skin. Prepare for negative, hateful comments, Maalouf advises, because you will get them. “You cannot read into those comments and take them personally,” she says. “Remember you’re not going to please everybody.”
- Find support. Fleming and Maalouf both recommend counselors find support systems. Maalouf has a group chat with other therapists who are on TikTok and Instagram, and they check in with each other regularly. Fleming consults with other mental health professionals on potential social media content she’s creating to make sure she’s getting her message across in a healthy, educational way. These colleagues can also serve as a source of support if counselors receive hurtful comments or their posts are taken out of context. Fleming once had a video she made about suicide awareness altered by another person so that the audio said, “Go kill yourself.” This was a triggering moment for Fleming, but her online counseling friends reached out and offered support.
- Remember, it’s hard work. Creating content and gaining a large following isn’t easy, Trans says. It’s a job that comes with its own stress.
Expanding the reach
Social media, of course, is no replacement for therapy, but more people, especially youth, are turning to these platforms for mental health advice and to share their own mental health struggles. As of March 2022, TikTok videos with the hashtag #mentalhealth had been viewed more than 29 billion times, which shows the popularity of this content.
Many worry this app could be making mental health concerns worse, not better. Recently, several states have begun investigating the potential effect TikTok may be having on young people’s mental and physical health.
Counselors, however, have an opportunity to use these platforms to offset misinformation and educate others on mental health. “Every therapist has their specialties, they have a unique personality, [and] they have something they can offer,” Collazo says. They “can add value to TikTok among all the misinformation.”
Social media can also normalize the process of going to counseling. Collazo’s first TikTok video explained why counselors don’t hug you or hand you tissues in session, and it got more than 200,000 views. That motivated him to keep going. If this information was new to people, he wondered what else could be interesting and educational for them. So, he made videos explaining why counselors have a clock in the room and why the chairs are a certain distance apart.
Many people have an inaccurate understanding of what happens in session, Fleming says. They sometimes assume that they have to talk about anxiety or their feelings the entire time. She’s created TikTok videos that demystify what therapy looks like.
TikTok videos on mental health are “having a big impact on people,” Fleming says, “and helping people recognize it’s OK if they don’t want to feel like this and [that] they can feel better.”
Social media has the added benefit of potentially decreasing the stigma around certain mental health issues. Kennedy has noticed an increase in posts about trauma, neurodivergence and mental health concerns that often have been highly stigmatized, such as autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “There wasn’t a lot of information about how it really feels to experience them [these stigmatized diagnoses],” she notes. “And now that we have social media where people are sharing their … experiences of living with these diagnoses, people are resonating with that and noticing the stereotypes of it versus how it actually feels to live with it.”
Social media can also allow more access to mental health care for people who might not be able to go to counseling because of the expense or time constraints, Kennedy says. “Not everybody has insurance that covers it or … can afford sliding-scale therapy,” she notes. The social media content, however, “can allow some access to the beginnings of self-healing work, which is really important.” Counselors can also use social media to connect people with resources and find low-cost counseling services, she adds.
“I do not think the rise of therapists on social media is keeping people from therapy. I think it’s actually helping more people seek out therapy,” Kennedy says. Going to counseling can be scary for many, especially those who have experienced trauma, she continues, “so feeling like you already have a sense of a therapist because of social media can make you feel a lot more comfortable to take the first step in reaching out.”
- “Self-diagnosis in a digital world” (from the April issue of Counseling Today magazine)
- “#disconnected: Why counselors can no longer ignore social media” (from the Counseling Today archives)
Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.