More Than Venting; The Real Human meaning of Mental Health on TikTok
Mental health is discussed among Gen Z more than any other generation, especially on social media. On TikTok, there are over 21 billion views on content related to mental health issues alone, with the biggest consumers being Gen Z since out of 100 million U.S Tik Tok users, 48.8 million are in this age group. Among the many types of videos on TikTok related to things like depression, anxiety, ADHD, or eating disorders, are self-diagnosis checklists, uplifting stories of recovery, psychological advice from counselors and doctors, humorous inside jokes, and more. So where is the sudden appetite for this kind of content coming from, and what’s the point of it from a Gen Z perspective?
Gen Z, born approximately between 1997 to 2012, are considered to be a generation defined by social media and the internet. They have more access to information on societal and personal problems, giving them a unique perspective which some people feel will enable them to right the wrongs of past generations. Regrettably, these young adults were faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, isolated with a smartphone in hand, at a pivotal time when previous generations were out socializing and experiencing new things. Faced with school closures, fragmented social structures, and pandemic isolation, many experienced an onset of depression and anxiety. Happy hour socializing, gossip in the cafeteria, and hallway conversations transferred to Instagram, TikTok, snapchat, and other social media. As such, these platforms also became the places to express emotions and share thoughts with others. While many used it as an outlet for sharing personal projects or creative pursuits, many also turned to TikTok and Instagram as places to discuss their experiences with declining mental health.
According to the American Psychology Association, 9 out of 10 Gen Z young adults said they have experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom because of stress, such as feeling depressed, sad, lacking interest, motivation or energy. Among other generations, Gen Z rated the highest percentage of getting help from mental health professionals. While many feel that being transparent is positive for destigmatizing mental health struggles and helping to raise awareness, concerns have been raised about these topics being expressed online and what it means for this generation. Whatever the perspective, this new form of online social behavior has caught on, forming communities on TikTok and helping many to experience a sense of belonging.
If you use TikTok, you’ve probably come across at least one post related to mental health. There’s no denying their popularity given that videos related to #depressed have reached 3.1 billion, #anxiety is at 10.1 billion, #eating disorder at 10.2 million, and #antidepressants at 113.2 million. For many, engaging with these conversations is therapeutic and takes the role of what was traditionally reserved for therapists in the past. Many videos show young adults rating the various medications they’ve been prescribed, others take the form of comedic skits alluding to the various symptoms of things like ADHD, or even self-harm. While some are intended for entertainment purposes, many are targeted towards helping others as well. Both professionals and regular users offer advice and tips for coping with triggers or having tough conversations with family and friends.
The nature of TikTok is such that repetition and copycatting off of someone else’s video only ensures the success of the trend. It’s what memes are all about, and the effects of this are clear when it comes to mental health content. But on a deeper level, this phenomenon can be understood by looking at what values are at play in the posting and viewing of this content.
Universalism is a value that shows up a lot with Gen Z, as well as its somewhat similar value of Benevolence. Gen Z are often called the ‘activist’ generation, and whether that’s quietly online or being part of a protest, the fact that anyone with a mobile device can post their content online, attach hashtags, get views, and perhaps even make valuable connections stands in stark contrast to the 1-on-1 therapeutic discussions past generations are used to. Topics that may have been relegated to private conversations in the past are having light shed on them, and with this comes the creators whose experiences have previously been marginalized. It’s a way of raising up topics that in the past were discussed in hushed tones and saying ‘hey, look, you’re not alone in your struggle, and you’re not crazy’.
Since these young adults are starting to define themselves among others, feeling a sense of community and belonging is an important part of development. For some, sharing vulnerability online is a way of showing concern for others or receiving the same. Talking about mental health struggles isn’t just about venting, it’s also creating a space to feel support and belonging alongside other users, whether it’s in the form of responding to a video with your own, or commenting words of advice. The TikTok algorithm and hashtags are a perfect way to find community and learn from others who may have some of the same concerns.
Gen Z are also at an age of discovering how they’re different form others, and seeking out individual identity. Figuring out one’s Myers Briggs type, or delving into astrological signs are other example of attempts at identity building and understanding oneself. While symptom checklists and hashtags may seem a crude attempt at self-diagnosis, it’s also an act of self-driven discovery for a generation that’s been known to disregard strict traditions for their own methods of learning.
Therefore, self-diagnosing and talking about mental health on social media is not just about being aware of the issues that exist and potentially findings ways to solve problems, but it’s an attempt to understand themselves in this confusing time, find one what makes them unique, and finding kinship with others who they can relate to.
There are concerns of course, about romanticizing mental health issues as a personality merit, or using them as comedy, and of course the spread of medication misinformation. Whether they’re ultimately helpful or not, we hope these trials and errors on TikTok will lead Gen Z to better self-understanding and a strong bond with themselves, as is the attempt. Experts say the phenomenon of openness to mental health talks may be a positive sign of our culture in general, and social media is surely an experimentation ground.
Regina (Intern, OMTM Americas)