In the early days of the pandemic, TikTok emerged—and caught fire—during lockdown as legions of bored families desperately seeking fun while stuck at home, discovered the then little-known app’s quirky videos.

Entertaining clips of kooky choreographed dances brought entire families out of their solitary corners to bust a move—laughing and spending time together creating their own versions of Renegade (seen by 29.7 million users by one account online) and other irresistible dance challenges. But dances aren’t the only videos gone viral.

Today the short-form video platform, which reportedly has 500 million users and counting, is giving mental health a new home. Life hacks for depression rooms, helpful anxiety tutorials, and a realistic look at the sheer torture of living with OCD rituals are all on view–giving support and reassurance to those suffering along in silence.

Unlike the platitudes on Instagram, TikTok’s content is raw and offers a window into someone else’s world because much of the content is provided by people struggling with mental health issues themselves. People with OCD bravely film the painstakingly repetitive routines they put themselves through every day; others with debilitating depression generously give tours of their hoard-like “depression rooms,” which thanks to their condition, haven’t been tidied in months. Ever wondered if you’ve ever experienced a panic attack? You can find that on TikTok, too, and it’s served up alongside actual mental health experts doling out advice.

[Click to Read: How to Stop a Panic Attack]

My Life’s a Hot Mess! Here’s What it Looks Like

The beauty of TikTok (at least for now) is it’s not a face-tuned alternate universe like Instagram (fake perfection has a way of making you feel bad about yourself). TikTok is a relatable, unfiltered, at times heartbreaking, often humorous, look at other people’s unscripted realities—mental health issues and all.

“It’s highlighting mental health conditions and bringing awareness to these issues, which are really important,” says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, assistant professor and director of the outpatient clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA) in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “And, it’s reaching a lot of young people whom we know are becoming more comfortable talking about mental health and mental health issues and how to manage symptoms of anxiety, depression, OCD, or PTSD,” she says.

“Most of the focus on mental health I see on TikTok is positive,” says psychiatrist David J. Puder, MD, medical director of the MEND program at Loma Linda University Behavioral Health in Loma Linda, California (who has his own TikTok platform). “I love the enthusiasm for understanding the mind and science. I think we can do a lot to reduce stigma and get people into mental health treatment. Knowledge is empowering to people who might not otherwise have access.”

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And in effect, the medium seems to be helping to de-stigmatize mental health conditions and bring more clarity to what they look like, Dr. Gallagher says. Not to mention, someone may not know they have a problem until they see another person who’s like them. “And then they realize this is something that other people deal with and something they can get help for,” Dr. Gallager says explaining what is for many an a-ha moment. “Getting the information out there for people to realize that they’re not alone, and to normalize things in the context of mental health conditions, can be really empowering.”

Help in The Moment, Just When You Need It

For people who may think they have an undiagnosed mental health condition or who are suffering from specific conditions such as OCD, anxiety, or depression, TikTok videos of others struggling from those same conditions offer reassurance and can be beneficial in the moment. Here, a look plus some expert interpretation:

Living with Depression

@domesticblisters

Don’t focus on an area, focus on the type of item over the whole space and you’ll be less overwhelmed. Much ❤️ to my mental health warriors.

♬ original sound – domesticblisters

Pro Takeaway
People who are depressed often struggle with motivation, decision-making, and task-completion, Dr. Gallagher says. “She used some really helpful techniques, that we use in psychology, of breaking a large task down into smaller pieces. It was a great visual aid to see how that could be accomplished. When you’re depressed, it can feel really overwhelming, and she shows that there are actually only five things here to clean up. It’s simple information, but it’s based in evidence,” she says. “Having peer dissemination is wonderful when we can have other people who are struggling with the same thing, say, ‘hey, this is my house and this is what I do about it, even when I’m feeling this way’; it makes it that much more accessible for someone else.”

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Living with OCD

@lapinstudios

♬ Rating – astapasta3

Pro Takeaway
Highlighting symptoms is important, says Dr. Gallagher. “I think she did a good job of showing how laborious some of these rituals can be. If somebody watches this and says, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a real problem that I can seek help for, that other people struggle with this too’, it can help normalize the condition,” she says. “For someone to feel really supported when they’re struggling is important.”

However, Dr. Gallagher also stresses that OCD is a complicated condition that can manifest differently in different people. “I don’t want people to watch this video and assume that’s how every OCD person is, or that this is how it’s going to be forever. I want people to know that these are treatable problems and there are a lot of effective evidence-based treatments out there for OCD, anxiety, and depression,” she says.

Living with Anxiety

@claudiashaw

#fyp #foryou #anxiety #panicattack #foryoupage #mentalhealthawareness

♬ original sound – claudiashaw

Pro Takeaway
“This is a very clear explanation of a grounding technique,” Dr. Puder says. “Often panic, as she describes, is really dissociation. Our mind is actually in a shutdown place, with less blood and glucose (energy) running to areas of the brain like the frontal lobe or areas that sense things. So, biting into a lemon can powerfully bring you back into the here and now and get those shut down parts of the brain to light up,” he says.

A Word of Caution

While the awareness and de-stigmatization of mental health issues TikTok users are creating can be incredibly beneficial, Dr. Gallagher points out that taking advice from armchair experts (aka real people) can sometimes pose problems. “We want to bring awareness, but then we also want to ask the next question, which is, how can we treat these conditions?”

The important thing, according to Dr. Gallagher, is getting the word out that there are effective evidence-based treatments for many mental health conditions, and a diagnosis doesn’t mean you have to live this way forever.

“It’s really important, especially for certain conditions like anxiety disorders, PTSD, and OCD, for people to know that evidence-based treatments are the most effective, and we want to make sure they’re getting connected to the right scientific information about their symptoms and ways to get help,” she says.

Dr. Gallagher’s Top Dos & Don’ts

  1. Do be careful about whom you take advice from. “The wrong information about how to handle these conditions can damage people more,” Dr. Gallagher says. Always talk to a mental health provider if you have real concerns.
  2. Don’t use TikTok as your only form of “therapy.” “If you are struggling with a mental health condition, reach out and find a therapist, and then you can vet what you’re seeing against what your therapist is telling you or what you’re doing in therapy,” she says.
  3. Do your homework. If you have a question about a condition, research the evidence-based treatment for it, as well as ways to get access. Knowledge is power!

When Real Life Goes Too Far

Graphic scenes of violence have plagued social media from the beginning and TikTok is no exception. Over the long Labor Day weekend, a video of a person ending his life found its way from Facebook Live (where it originated according to multiple news reports) to TikTok.

A TikTok spokesperson explained the problem and how the company addressed it. The following information, from a statement, appeared on techcrunch.com: “Our systems, together with our moderation teams, have been detecting and removing these clips for violating our policies against content that displays, praises, glorifies, or promotes suicide.”

The spokesperson went on to recognize the community of users that quickly alerted others to the problem and reported it to the company in an effort to get the disturbing content removed from the platform ASAP. Recognizing the potential for harm, the app provides contact information for several mental health hotlines. If you’d like to learn more about the company’s policy and how it monitors user-generated content, read the company’s mission statement.

Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide.

[For More Emergency Mental Health Services, Read: Get Help Now]

Last Updated: Sep 10, 2020