From a well-lit room, the plants blurred in the background, his face framed by closed captions, Shahem Mclaurin speaks directly to the camera. The lesson: “Ten ways to begin to heal.”
But it’s not a classroom or a therapist’s office. It’s TikTok.
“We all have our own things to bear, and those burdens should not be carried with us for the rest of our lives,” says Mclaurin, a licensed social worker.
Through videos, including some on topics such as pain“race/racism“, traumaand healingother raw reactions or trending sounds, like this call to action to amplify people of color on TikTok – Mclaurin advocates for better representation in mental health. Mclaurin speaks to viewers who haven’t found caregivers they connect with due to the stigma surrounding therapy and acknowledges that few practitioners are like them.
“I’m a black, queer therapist, and I want to show myself fully like that,” Mclaurin said. “I always say, ‘My durag is part of my uniform.'”
Mental health professionals have gained popularity on TikTok, treating a wide range of mental health issues, responding to the racial trauma of charged events like Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floydr and January 6 uprisingand bringing humor on sensitive topics such as depression that for some communities remain stifled. On TikTok, black therapists are talking openly about working in a predominantly white field, while making mental health care more accessible to people who might be excluded from the healthcare system.
The Chinese-owned video app, with its US headquarters in Culver City, California, provides a massive platform and even fame potential, with over 1 billion monthly users. The #mentalhealth hashtag has amassed over 28 billion views, alongside others like #blacktherapist and #blackmentalhealth that attract millions of people.
Video production has become a main job for Kojo Sarfo, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner living in Los Angeles, who has amassed 2 million followers. Sarfo dances and performs short skits about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders and other mental health issues.
“I try to lighten up the topics that people have a really hard time talking about,” he said. “And to let people know that it’s not as scary as you might think to go get help.”
Mental health professionals can run the gamut from medically trained psychiatrists to psychologists with doctorates to mental health counselors with master’s degrees. Although diversity is improving in the field – black professionals make up 11% of psychologists under the age of 36 – only 4% of the entire US psychologist workforce is black, according to the American Psychological Associationthe most recent data. More than three quarters mental health counselors are white.
Patrice Berry, a psychologist from Virginia, uses TikTok primarily to answer people’s questions about things like tips for new therapists and setting boundaries with teens. Berry is not here to find clients. She has a waiting list in her private practice. She said TikTok is a way to give back.
Its comment sections are an outpouring of widely appreciated notes and follow-up questions, with some videos getting over a thousand responses.
In a TikTok, Berry jokes about abruptly leaving a church when “they say you don’t need therapy or medication.” One user commented that this is how she was raised in her Black Baptist church and that “we have so much to unlearn and relearn.” Another wrote: ‘As a therapist I love it. Preach!”
A tight-knit TikTok community formed, and Berry led a Facebook group dedicated to black, Indigenous, and other people of color focused on mental health.
“I wanted to create a safe space for us to have real conversations about our experiences on the app and share tips and resources,” she said.
The topics of therapist Janel Cubbage’s videos range from evidence-based strategies to prevent bridge suicides for collective traumasometimes speaking directly to his black audience.
Like other TikTokers, she is quick to note that watching videos is no substitute for seeking professional help, and important concepts can get lost in the scroll. Additionally, while TikTok strives to identify and remove inaccurate information, creators without a mental health degree go viral discuss similar issues without the expertise or training to back up their advice.
When it comes to trolls, Cubbage said, the emotional support of creators she’s encountered on TikTok is invaluable. “That’s been one of the really cool things about the app is finding this community of black therapists who have become like friends to me,” she said.
Unlike Facebook, which relies heavily on a user’s friends and followers to populate the feed, TikTok’s algorithm, or “recommendation system”, has a heavy hand on what people see. When a user interacts with certain hashtags, the algorithm pushes similar content, said Kinnon MacKinnon, an assistant professor at York University in Toronto who has searched for the application. At the same time, TikTok strongly moderates content that does not meet its Community Rulesremoving pro-eating disorder hashtags like #skinnycheck, for example.
Black creators repeatedly said they were removed from the app. At the height of protests following the death of George Floyd, the company apologized after posts uploaded using #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd received 0 views. (TikTok cited a “technical issue.”) Last June, many black TikTok creators went on strike to protest the lack of credit for their work as white creators copied their dances and soared to fame.
Black therapists also suspect racial bias. Berry said that sometimes TikTok users questioned his credentials or tagged a white creator to confirm the information.
Around the same time as the strike, TikTok wrote that it was training its enforcement teams “to better understand more nuanced content like cultural appropriation and slurs.” The company organizes various initiatives promoting black creators, including an incubator program. Shavone Charles, TikTok’s diversity and inclusion communications manager, declined to speak publicly, but pointed KHN to statements posted by TikTok.
Marquis Norton, a TikToker, licensed career counselor and adjunct professor at Hampton University, is trying to steer people to more in-depth resources outside of the app, but he’s worried people are sometimes trying to self-diagnose. from what they find on the internet and misunderstood.
Viewers routinely ask Norton to take them on — a common request heard from mental health professionals on TikTok — though complicating factors like state licensing and insurance restrictions make it difficult to find support. a therapist on the app. So he make a video on where to look.
“I think it’s wonderful that this opens a door for people,” said Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist and founder of the African American Knowledge Optimized for Mindfully Healthy Adolescents (AAKOMA) project, a BIPOC mental health organization. At the same time, she added, it can be frustratingly like a “glass door” for some, where mental health services remain out of reach.
“Black people still underutilize mental health care in proportion to need,” she said.
A behavioral health equity report from the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that in 2019, 36% of black teens ages 12 to 17 who had major depressive episodes received treatment, compared to more than half of their white peers.
Shortages of mental health care providers and the costs associated with therapy are factors, but “plus, they’re just not going away,” Breland-Noble said. “Conversations haven’t changed all that much for black diaspora communities.”
Especially for older generations, Norton said, people adapted a mental illness model of health, in which asking for help meant there was “something wrong with you.” But the mindset has shifted, propelled by Millennials and Gen Z, toward a wellness model without the same stigma.
Norton hopes his videos will continue to move these conversations forward.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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