‘Instagram therapy’ is on the rise, but experts say it could be harmful

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CORRECTION: This article has been modified since its original post.

Caroline was in an abusive marriage for 27 years.

The 50-year-old got divorced about six years ago, but as a result of the abuse, Caroline, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, was left with severe depression. The diagnosis affected her diet, weight and sleep, and she has been hospitalized three times.

“He spent a large part of our marriage gaslighting me,” she told Global News. “I had often been suspicious of his behaviour, but he always had a good, convincing explanation — which I’d fall for. It’s only with hindsight that I realize to what extent he’d lied and cheated on me.

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In the time since she and her husband divorced, Caroline has focused on getting better. She’s tried both in-person and video therapy but prefers the latter because she can do it in the comfort of her own home.

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As part of her recovery process, Caroline started using Twitter as a way to raise awareness around abusive relationships. In the process, she stumbled upon a large community of men and women with similar experiences.

“I post daily … I prepare my own graphics and choose a quote that speaks to me on that day,” she said. “We support each other through comments and sometimes via [direct message].”

“We know each others’ stories, we provide helpful advice and feedback and we generally just root for each other on our healing journeys.”

In Caroline’s experience, Twitter has proven to be an “amazing” place to share educational information and inspiring quotes with others.

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“It has really helped me on my healing journey,” she said.

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Like Caroline, many people have found solace in online communities.

While they are typically considered positive interactions, sometimes the discussions between peers are misrepresented as a form of therapy.

It’s a phenomenon happening across all social media platforms, but it’s commonly referred to as “Instagram therapy” — and experts worry it could be doing more harm than good.

Online support groups aren’t the same as therapy

Online peer-to-peer support groups can be an amazing place to find community.

“The benefits of this are, obviously, hearing that other people are going through a similar struggle,” said Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist in Montreal. “That can be very validating, normalizing and reduce feelings of shame.”

However, Kirmayer emphasizes that support groups are not the same as therapy.

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“Therapy doesn’t happen over social media, and it shouldn’t,” she said.

“Just because it’s not therapy doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to be helpful or healing.”

In her experience, Kirmayer has seen folks like Caroline share articles that they’ve read or tips that work for them, ultimately cultivating a warm, accepting environment.

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“There’s certainly a space for that,” she said. “But therapy is much more than meaningful quotes … it’s about having a very personal safe space where there’s an element of collaboration [with your therapist].”

It’s important to Kirmayer that a distinction is clearly drawn between therapy and what’s happening online.

She uses social media to “share information that will help normalize hardships and common struggles people go through,” but what she does in her practice is very different.

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“We work together to figure out what your individual or unique experience has been as opposed to this kind of collective struggle we’re talking about online,” she said.

Registered psychotherapist Joshua Peters agrees: “You’re receiving advice [online] but you’re not actually contextualizing it to your experience, which is at the core of therapy.

Shana MacDonald, social media expert and assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, says pseudo-therapy on social media lacks any room for reality or negativity, which can lead to unrealistic expectations for one’s own life.

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“The virtue of the platform [Instagram] doesn’t let you do anything that’s ugly. You can’t be real on Instagram,” she said.
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“We know that has negative effects, and it’s getting increasingly more prominent with this generation and how intensely they’re curating things.”

The spread of misinformation

Inspirational meme accounts are a growing trend on social media, and they can be a great tool for finding connection.

However, Kirmayer is worried that some online spaces advertised as being similar to therapy are actually devoid of any licensed mental health-care professionals.

This can leave such groups more susceptible to the spread of misinformation.

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“This is why you see more and more licensed mental health professionals stepping into the online [space],” said Kirmayer.

“There’s this feeling that this is [the] way people are getting and sharing information, and [we need] to make it a space with accurate information.”

A common example is the use of psychological disorders — like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or bipolar disorder — in casual discourse.

“These labels are [often used to mean] something that isn’t exactly what they represent. It can be very stigmatizing,” said Kirmayer. She and other therapists have entered the online space with the goal of educating users about what these labels actually mean — and why they shouldn’t be used lightly.
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MacDonald fears that social media allows for mental illness to be trivialized. She recently learned that some young people are using meme culture as a defence mechanism.

“It’s a way of joking away serious things in this joke forum. There’s something kind of serious underlying that,” MacDonald said. “It’s a way of having currency with your peers, where you’re like, ‘I’m so depressed’ with a Kermit meme or [something].

Calls for more regulation online

Peters says social media is often regarded as the “wild west” by those in his field.

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“It’s an unregulated area of therapy and psychology in general,” Peters said. “One of the major components that’s missing is that many of the regulatory boards [in Canada] haven’t created much guidance on the right end result.

“There are a lot of people out there giving therapeutic advice, [and] they themselves may not actually have the right accreditation.”

Peters worries the general public can’t differentiate between a licensed therapist and someone who is just sharing their thoughts online.

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“People confuse psycho-education with therapy,” he said. “When you’re scrolling through Instagram and there’s some post that gives you advice for living a better life, that’s psycho-educational, not therapeutic.”

This can trick users into thinking they’re receiving professional treatment, and as a result, placing them in danger.

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“When people connect with those [accounts], they feel less lonely, but nothing actually changes,” he said.
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“We want them to actually get to a point where they’re less lonely and they’re actually able to work through some of the stress with [the tools they learn in therapy].”

Peters is a firm believer that most people would benefit from actual therapy.

“Life is hard,” he said. “Human beings have an incredibly complex amount of variables thrown at them these days.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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