How Gen Z are using TikTok to document their messy recovery from mental health issues

TikTok’s #recovery community is sharing the day-to-day realities of life with mental health disorders.

by Maisy Farren
13 March 2020, 4:00pm

For most, TikTok is simply a place to watch viral #fliptheswitch videos, #cleaningchallenge clips and listen to Nurse Holly giving out questionable sex-education. But, with over 800 million users, 41% of whom are aged between 16-24, it’s offering a new online space for younger people to offer each other support and solidarity. Considering that one in six people in the UK report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as depression or anxiety) in any given week, it’s no surprise that plenty of this content comes in the form of relatable videos about life with mental health issues.

For young people living with mental health issues, super curated, aspirational Instagram feeds can be more harmful than helpful. A 2017 study by the Royal Society of Public Health found that Instagram was the main culprit for negatively impacting the mental health of 16-24-year olds, with users reporting increased levels of depression and anxiety when using the app. The idea of showing the world the physical signs of a depressive episode on Instagram isn't unheard of, but TikTok's ‘recovery’ hashtag is teeming with the true to life mental health content that just doesn’t exist on other social media apps. At the time of writing, #recovery has racked up an impressive 346.6M views. These 13-sec clips feature IRL recovery stories from TikTokers with depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, addiction and everything else in between.

“I make relatable, educational and reassuring content that sheds light on all things MH” 19-year-old student Anna tells me. Having been diagnosed with OCD, anxiety, ADHD and autism at a young age, Anna constantly struggled to find other people online who shared similar experiences to her. “I’ve always been a bundle of anxiety and this causes a lot of physical symptoms such as collapsing, dizziness and nausea,” she explains. “When I was younger, I always failed to see that physical experience represented on social media.”

With 15.3 thousand followers, one of Anna’s most viewed TikToks is a 13-second clip, that bursts with emoji hearts, reminding her followers that their productivity does not determine their worth or value. Another short video shows her in the midst of a panic attack. No matter how positive or negative the content is, each video will, without fail, be inundated with comments like “omg I thought I was the only one!!” and “I really needed to hear this right now”.

Max Selwood approaches the #recovery tag in a slightly different way. The 23-year-old Londoner makes funny videos to “educate, motivate and reassure” anyone on TikTok struggling with their mental health. Since being diagnosed with OCD, anxiety and depression at 18, Max noticed a distinct lack of positive mental health content on the then up and coming platform. “I’ve always spoken about mental health in person, but I wanted to take it a step further.” Aware of the younger audience of TikTok compared to Instagram, he started making his “silly videos” to help teenagers feel less alone. “I felt weird as hell when I was around 14 because I didn’t understand what was going on… I’m trying to be the person I needed when I was 14.”

Dr Shaire Coombes, a Child and Family Psychotherapist and the author of Mindful Kids, believes sharing recovery stories on social media has helped to break down the stigma around mental health and foster a sense of community. “I believe that sharing mental health recovery has made it more ‘normal’, but perhaps to the point that some people feel they’re not normal if they aren’t struggling and therefore attribute normal, everyday problems to something more pathological,” Dr Coombes explains. However, she also believes that this particular type of oversharing can pose a risk. “Being able to share stories may be really useful for the sufferer, but for some people it can provide a supply of attention that isn’t necessarily a healthy thing.”

Instead, Dr Coombes advises young people who may be struggling to turn to reputable social media accounts such as Sane, Young Minds and Mind for managed and curated advice and seeking a sense of community online.

But perhaps Dr Coombes worry about attention is an oversimplification of the safe space and dialogue these videos provide. Anna, for instance, tells me she makes conscientious choices not to show experiences which might encourage or inspire negative behaviours in her young followers. “I know there’s a line between showing your experiences that may make others feel less alone and sharing experiences that could encourage or inspire negative behaviours in the people watching,” she says.

“I hold back the things that won’t help people,” Max agrees, “I’m an open book and I’m willing to talk about literally anything, but I want my videos to help, motivate and create laughter. I just want people to know that it’s fine if you feel bad, and not to beat yourself up for panicking.”

As an outlet, the videos may not be perfect, but nor is the system to help young people with their mental health. The current referral timeline for talking therapy in the UK ranges anywhere between 6-18 weeks - many wait months longer than that. It’s important, and helpful, for those waiting for official healthcare to have something to relate to online, on a platform where they spend the majority of their time. Whether it’s a musical comedy video about the day-to-day side effects of OCD disorder or a chance to see what a real-life anxiety attack looks like, TikTok’s #recovery community is an online force for good, albeit an imperfect one.

mental health