Social Media Therapists Can Resemble Cult Leaders

Therapists on Instagram and TikTok have greatly increased access to mental health advice, but opened the door to cultlike relationships without providing actual care.

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This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

The search for a good therapist can be rough. In my experience, it’s like going on a series of particularly emotionally intense dates where you have to wait weeks and then pay them hundreds of dollars to judge you.

So I’m grateful when I’m doomscrolling Instagram and a friend shares an aesthetically pleasing graphic about mental health to their story. The same goes for TikTok when my unsettlingly personalized algorithm gently feeds me “six easy hacks to manage your exact cocktail of mental illnesses,” from a kind-looking therapist.

At this stage in a global mental health crisis, when scores of apocalypses are simultaneously having their way with our collective psyche (from the fallout of a yearslong pandemic to literal war), social media therapists have noticed a need for easier and cheaper access to mental health resources. Therapists don’t necessarily have to be good at therapy to become influencers — but they do need to be excellent at viral marketing. BuzzFeed News spoke with six licensed therapists about their online presence and the dangers of relying on social media posts for mental health care.

Through her Instagram account, licensed family therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw said she provides a “stopgap” for people who can’t or don’t want to go to therapy by providing information people would otherwise have to decode through books or courses. Counselor Amanda E. White said she hoped to “clear up misconceptions” and “give people tools” as a professional after seeing nonprofessionals sharing mental health advice via Instagram.

Psychologist Jenn Hardy started her Instagram over four years ago to create an audience for a potential writing career but found it helped increase her private therapy practice, and now she uses her platform as a “pro bono opportunity to benefit individuals for whom therapy is not accessible.” Clinical psychologist Raquel Martin said she uses TikTok to maximize her ability to help people without burning out.

“In this day and age, I consider being on social media one of my responsibilities as a licensed clinical psychologist because I am aware that therapy can be a privilege and individuals use other resources, such as social media, to educate and help themselves,” Martin told BuzzFeed News. “Part of my responsibility is to ensure that they are receiving accurate and culturally competent information.”

Psychologist Han Ren, who posts on Instagram and TikTok, told BuzzFeed News that a lot of therapy content she saw going viral on social media was made by white creators and focused on middle-class white people, which frustrated her because the people who “need this kind of support the most are the least likely to be able to access it due to finances, stigma, or knowledge.”

Articles in both the New York Times and Refinery 29 explore how therapists sharing content on social media is a win for access to advice and the destigmatization of disorders, but it’s not actual therapy or a replacement for medical care. Many therapists note this as a disclosure in their bios, but not all.

The trouble comes from the rise of the algorithm-enabled influencer-therapist. Though TikTok’s algorithm has the power to throttle average people from obscurity to fame with just one video, the six therapists who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story said they joined social media in the first place to reach a wider audience. They are all licensed therapists, but they’re licensed to provide personalized, one-on-one care. No one goes to school to become a therapist for millions of people simultaneously.

That’s why listening to an episode of the “Sounds Like a Cult” podcast shook me to my core when the host, author and cult expert Amanda Montell, said social media therapists are an “emerging cultish group” and a “pending threat … manipulating our culture.”

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This doesn’t mean that social media therapists are all mini cult leaders — it means we should be wary of their potential influence on us. In her 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 ones used by cults, knowingly or not, 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 through exposure to the fact that we are all susceptible to cultish influence to some degree,” she said. “Sometimes it looks like people fanatically worshipping an Instagram therapist or … stanning a celebrity so hardcore that they cut off the friends who don’t support that celebrity.”

Therapists sharing access to the information usually guarded behind therapy doors or rendered inaccessible off the “high pedestal of academic literature” have good intentions, for the most part, she said. Sharing “a moment of solace or a nugget of wisdom” can help, she said, but it’s important for us to maintain a healthy distance from those influencers and recognize that they are not a replacement for real therapy.

Some social media therapists lean into their influencer status by frequently participating in trends, like @your.tiktok.therap1st, @rickflarapist, and @the.truth.doctor. Their marketing savvy makes them some of the first influencer-therapists that show up in a direct search for therapy on the platform — and they can provide helpful, digestible content on mental health.

Part of the cultlike potential of these accounts, especially on TikTok, rears its head when licensed social media therapists reply to comments or stitch existing videos to “disperse what should be very bespoke mental health advice to a mass audience” without the full context, Montell said. She said addressing their followers as “you” and talking about specific viral moments on the platform creates a false sense of intimacy.

For instance, an influencer-therapist weighing in on how the “West Elm Caleb” debacle was an example of “love bombing” glazes over the nuances of that situation and relies entirely on various posts stitched together to create a narrative that villainizes a bystander we know very little about, arming their audience with a shiny new buzzword they may not fully comprehend.

Social media users have been reckoning with the problem 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 every new take, they lose diagnostic meaning.

Conversations about “trauma responses,” a serious and life-altering issue for people who have endured enormous tragedies, became a meme on TikTok. Therapists introduce these terms to the public in hopes of raising awareness, but even if they do so responsibly with proper context, they can get picked up by “life coaches” and spread to regular people hoping to hop onto 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 that abusers do. For people in abusive relationships, that information can be life-changing. For others, it’s just a “thought-terminating cliché” that can overcomplicate interpersonal conflict.

The six therapists who spoke to BuzzFeed News for the story were all aware of their power to influence people in a negative way, and collectively provided a few words of advice for people who might encounter similar accounts: Be skeptical of pop psychology buzzwords, don’t engage with viral “hot takes” from therapists that lack proper nuance, don’t assume any kind of relationship with a therapist you see on social media, and don’t mistake mental health tips for mental health care.

Han Ren

On social media, we’re constantly being bombarded with advice from so-called experts in finance, fitness, career, fashion, and even mental health. Bad advice can be devastating. Going on bad dates — and working with therapists one-on-one to get the care that’s affordable and available to you — is more than worth it, in my opinion.