Therapy content has taken over Instagram. “Boundaries with friends can look like: ‘I am not okay with you making jokes about my insecurities,’” reads one post from Sara Kuburic, a psychotherapist better known as the Millennial Therapist online. In fact, my own therapist often references her posts in our sessions. From posts about how to forgive yourself when you’re struggling to how to set boundaries or how trauma shows up in our everyday lives, Instagram therapy is a world of its own.
In short posts, these online therapists attempt to help people navigate their relationships with themselves and others. Popular accounts include Dr. Jennifer Mulan (better known as Decolonizing Therapy) and Andrea Glik, who goes by the Somatic Witch, who specifically helps people understand their nervous systems. All of this can be relatively helpful for people who don’t have any access to actual therapy sessions.
Still, just because posts on social media can provide therapeutic education doesn’t mean that Instagram is therapy — and that’s an important distinction.
The therapists who run these accounts have to set strict boundaries with followers. “The way I talk to people on IG is not the same way I’d speak to my clients,” says Alex Jenny, LCSW, also known as The Drag Therapist. “My clients and I have agreed to be in relationship to each other in a very specific context. I am not responsible for anyone’s emotional process who is not my client.”
On the flip side, getting a large following as a therapist can mean that their followers put them on pedestals. Followers may to fail to address therapists as actual people, and instead view an account as owing them something.
Instagram can’t replace therapy, but it can shrink knowledge gaps about mental and emotional health.
In fact, education can reduce barriers that people face when trying to understand their experiences and get health care. Despite this, therapists say it’s important not to automatically internalize the posts as personal advice or solutions specific to their situations, and instead as education and fodder for thought. Some have found that using the accounts as journaling prompts or conversation prompts, rather than therapy at face-value, most helpful.
“I follow therapy accounts that focus on C-PTSD, learning boundaries, self-healing from trauma, and LGBTQ+ and Eating Disorder/Body positive specific accounts,” says Irina, a non-binary Russian immigrant and journalist. “Often, my partner and I send each other posts as a gentle way to address our behavior, to validate each other, or to bring up some concerns or questions during our weekly check-ins.” Prior to therapy, following these accounts helped them better understand their mental health. Now they’re able to use them alongside therapy.
One positive is that the more prevalent these accounts become, the more they can normalize therapy as something that everyone needs and deserves — and destigmatize it as something that’s only for people who are experiencing something severe or only for “crazy” people.
“I believe it’s important that this knowledge be widespread instead of something that can only be accessed within a medical model of treatment. I hope to demystify the work of therapy through my social media engagement,” says The Drag Therapist.
These therapy accounts can also help normalize having difficult conversations in therapy about things like eating disorders, racial trauma, LGBTQ+ related trauma, or other things that people might be more hesitant to bring up for fear of a therapist’s reaction. “I also hope to show that it is possible for a queer, trans woman of color who is unapologetic about my sexual expression and is vulnerable with both my clients and my followers to be a therapist.”
During the pandemic, many people who lost access to therapy have once again turned back to these accounts. After moving back in with her family and finding intense dynamics, Shuba, a recent college graduate with depression and anxiety says that following therapists like Nedra Tawwab has allowed her to figure out how to cope.
“I watch her stories which often include surveys about how we’re coping with things or give us a chance to ask her questions. I also attended a webinar where she talked about being a cycle breaker — I learned so much about breaking codependency cycles and setting boundaries,” says Shuba. “It’s the validation in these Instagram posts that bring me comfort.” Using Tawwab’s educational tools ultimately help Shuba until she can find a new therapist.
Some people, however, have a more critical view of these accounts and are especially mindful of exactly whose content they consume.
Cassie, a recent graduate, says that before she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and in therapy, she allowed herself to justify toxic behaviors by picking and choosing advice from mental health pages on Instagram and other sites. “When I spent hours per day admiring myself in front of the mirror to the extent that I was avoiding social and academic responsibilities, I was ‘practicing healthy self-love.’ When I lashed out at friends and family for perceived slights, I was ‘expressing my feelings.’ Basically, it bothers me how a lot of the mental health advice given out online is presented as one-size-fits-all, without any nuance,” says Cassie.
Sam, a nonbinary 26-year-old who is diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, a panic disorder, PTSD, and is in recovery from self-harm, says they’ve been stressed out and even triggered by some therapy accounts they’ve had to unfollow.
“I would say that I unfollow therapist or wellness accounts if I feel like the content does not spark deeper interrogation of my emotional landscape, is not paired with accessible and sustainable action items and is not regularly explicit about their boundaries as a therapist or wellness person on Instagram,” Sam tells Greatist.
They’ve seen firsthand how some accounts blur the line between influencer content and posts that can feel harmful and actual mental health education. After they established personal guidelines for the kinds of therapy accounts they follow, they’ve been able to be more intentional in their healing and what they consume online. Overall this has led them to find healthier ways to reflect offline.
The Drag Therapist agrees that’s the best way to constructively use therapy accounts. It’s not healthy for anyone to see Instagram posts or the therapists who create them as the ultimate authority on any specific topic, she says. Using more critical thinking is a serious part of choosing to follow these accounts.
“I would encourage people to not just take our posts at face value and to truly engage deeper with them in a way that’s personal and reflective: What are your reactions? Does this resonate with you and why? Are there parts of it that you don’t relate to? I’d like to think that these posts are jumping off points for further thought,” says The Drag Therapist.
“Take what’s helpful and leave the rest. It’s similar to dating, in that, you want to take your time to make sure that the therapist is going to be the best for your needs. Similarly, when following Instagram therapy accounts, it’s important to remember that each therapist comes to their social media engagement from their own specific perspective, with their own biases,” says The Drag Therapist. “We cannot hope to hold the nuance of how their identities and experiences may change the way they should engage with our posts.”
In other words, we have to remember to take things with a grain of salt and that even the most relatable online therapist is not necessarily speaking directly to us. They have their own life and influences informing them. We should use posts as conversation starters to help our emotional evolution, not necessarily things that will fix our problems or absolve us of doing the work.
Elly is a New York-based writer, journalist, and poet who also loves to host parties for her friends. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here or follow her on Twitter.