Couch surfing: As therapists turn influencers, here’s what to watch out for

There’s an unlikely new group of influencers on social media — therapists, counsellors and psychiatrists. With followings in the tens of thousands on Instagram and Facebook, they’re debunking myths about mental health, posting colourful notes on how to tackle anxiety, offering platforms where people can talk to them and to each other.

“Social media definitely allows therapy to look more appealing,” says clinical psychologist Pragya Lodha. As more people need help with anxiety, insomnia and the build-up of stress in the pandemic, this is important, she adds. Many of those watching are young, need help and have never spoken to a professional.

The posts can act as a gateway, Lodha adds. Unlike helplines, where the person is required to make the first move, on social media, the professional can reach out. This can also make the idea of counselling less intimidating.

While such an approach could blur boundaries that are vital in any therapy equation, it could also act as a vital starting point, mental health experts say.

Divija Bhasin, a 24-year-old counselling psychologist from Delhi, posts 30- to 50-second videos as @awkwardgoat3 on Instagram. She posts about anxiety, cyberbullying, feminism, problems at school, mental health for men, and has around 22,000 followers.

Bhasin uses humour and the element of surprise to make her posts engaging, and is careful to stress, online and off-, that the videos are not a substitute for therapy. But she’s been getting so many requests to book a session that she’s tied up with a clinical psychologist to provide therapy over audio and video calls.

“I feel like my videos work well since they’re presented in an entertaining manner plus people know they’re coming from a professional,” she says. “I stay away from listing symptoms, because I’ve never found that helpful — and it leads people to self-diagnose and get even more anxious.”

A 21-year-old medical student from Bengaluru who spoke on condition of anonymity says she reached out to Bhasin on Instagram, for help with her anxiety and low self-esteem. That was in the initial days of the lockdown. “I find Divija helpful because she is young, so I find it easier to share my concerns with her,” the student says. “She is very non-judgemental and honest. I also think her posts on Instagram helped destigmatise therapy.”

Clinical psychologist Srishti Asthana (@words.of.a.psychologist) has been posting on Instagram since March. “I have been very honest on my page about my mental health issues too,” she says. “I also post about social issues like ‘locker-room’ talk and the objectification of women. But I don’t take the textbook approach.”

Her video on the dangerous practice of unqualified influencers offering paid “therapy” sessions online has more than 70,000 views.

Her approach — whether talking about failed relationships or professional stumbles — is simple, and direct but empathetic. This is important because those reaching out on Instagram typically range in age from 14 to 35, counsellors say.

“They’re often school students who cannot access therapy. I sometimes share links to helplines with them since in most cases their parents don’t really understand what they’re going through,” Bhasin says.

One such platform is Therapize India, set up by psychologist Aviva Bhansali and journalist Anushka Kelkar in August. The site seeks to help connect individuals with qualified therapists across India, across specialisations and budgets. The handle has around 16,600 followers on Instagram.

“Our posts on how to pick the right therapist, what to expect from therapy, who should consider seeking therapy, and how to support loved ones who are struggling have resonated most with our audience,” says Kelkar.

In a country with 0.29 psychiatrists per 100,000 people — against a recommended 3 per 100,000 — according to 2017 World Health Organization data, online access to counselling becomes even more vital.

“You have to know your boundaries, as clinician and patient,” says clinical psychologist Lodha. “Many untrained individuals advocate for mental health in overly simplistic manners, making it all about positive thinking, having hobbies and being productive. This further amplifies the stigma around mental illness and discourages people from seeking real help. Therapeutic advice online should never be seen as a substitute for psychotherapy, which is confidential, secure and caters to individual needs.”

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