Sara Sadok, an 18-year-old from the Chicago area, has become a voice on TikTok for those who may struggle with mental illness or disordered eating. People are now using the duet function to eat "with" Sadok, one bite at a time.
The TikTok duets, which are extremely emotional and may be triggering to some, have gotten a lot of support on the app. Sadok told BuzzFeed News her initial TikTok was inspired by a friend whom she's observed as having unhealthy eating habits, but who has not been officially diagnosed with a disorder.
"I never suffered through eating disorders but I know someone who has. It was hard because they didn’t want to admit it but I knew," said Sadok of her friend. "It was getting to the point where I really wanted to help. I decided one day ... let me try to post something. Subconsciously I was doing it for them and hoping they’d see it and it could help them."
About two weeks ago, Sadok recorded herself offering to eat her breakfast "with" a phantom audience, or whoever might be watching and needing company.
"If you ever have a hard time sitting down for a meal, let's have a meal together," she says in her TikTok. "I'll take the first bite to make it a little less intimidating for you, and you can have your first bite after, OK?"
Sadok then mentors the viewer through the next few bites.
"I know that was hard and I'm really proud of you. Let's have our second bite together," she says.
Sadok said she's always wanted to make content that's compassionate toward people, but she was shocked by how quickly strangers took to her TikTok. People wrote heartfelt thanks in the comment section, saying something so simple had a profound impact on them.
"You are an angel ❤️ thanking you on behalf of myself and many other people who struggle with food. sometimes this is all we need," one person wrote.
Sadok told BuzzFeed News she was overwhelmed by the influx of people dueting her video with actual footage of themselves "eating with her." The duets are also not exclusively from people who've identified themselves as in treatment or recovering for eating disorders.
"I didn’t know how much I was helping — I watched almost all the duets and it brought tears to my eyes," she said. "I went live on TikTok and people were commenting, 'you saved my life.'"
"It's amazing," she added.
Patricia Cavazos, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University, told BuzzFeed News that Sadok's TikTok could serve a range of mental health needs, noting young people are more isolated than ever these days.
"My impression is that Sara was attempting to help individuals who are struggling with eating disorders and/or depression," she said. "This content can help the individuals who have these problems realize that they are not alone and that others do understand and want to reach out to provide help."
"Eating disorders thrive in isolation, so eating with other people is often very helpful for those in recovery," added Beth L. Hoffman, a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh who's published studies about how disordered eating is impacted by social media.
"I think videos like these can be a helpful supplement to in-person support, particularly during COVID-19."
However, experts caution those living with a mental illness or eating disorder to not use social media as a replacement for long-term professional therapy.
"It's important that people with eating disorders have professional support and that professionals are aware of both the positive and negative influences social media can have on eating disorders," said Hoffman.
Cavazos added that seeing videos like these could also unintentionally trigger unhealthy thought patterns.
"Someone may view the video and feel supported and encouraged; they may also prefer to receive mental health help in this way via social media and through peer support versus through a health professional," she said. "On the flip side, this type of content may trigger or possibly even worsen symptoms of mental illness by normalizing or downplaying the seriousness of this problem."
Sadok said she's not sure if her friend, who inspired her to create the TikTok, has seen yet it. But she's hopeful.
"For [my friend], it’s still something taboo to her," Sadok said. "There are people who don’t want to comment on TikTok cause they don’t want anyone to know they’re suffering. If you don’t have a safe person to talk to, I can be that person."
"I think she’s seen it — if she has she hasn’t told me," she said. "Hopefully, she feels comfortable talking to me about it one day."