Mental health professionals offer cautionary warning about 'harmful' social media trend: 'TikTok is not treatment'

Morgan Greenwald
·5-min read

The 15Minutes4Me test has blown up on TikTok, with more than 6.4 million views as of writing on the #15minutes4me hashtag alone. The 15-minute online survey is based around an assessment questionnaire and helps people determine their current mental state in order to figure out a proper treatment protocol and provide strategies and solutions for dealing with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. If a person so decides, they can sign up for the next step: A month-by-month program of daily sessions designed to be a “therapeutic self-help program.”

The widespread use of this online self-help program among teens begs the question, though: How helpful can a viral test really be? We spoke to a number of mental health professionals to find out.

“With so many young people using the TikTok app, there’s been room for much more candid conversations surrounding the topic of mental health,” said Kristin Wilson, LPC, vice president of clinical outreach at Newport Academy, a healing center for adolescents struggling with mental health issues. “These discussions can help teens feel that they are not alone in their struggles and create an online community of support.”

“The quiz itself can bring increased awareness to feelings of anxiety, depression and stress; however, the results of the test can be startling to some and its individualized accuracy is not verified by mental health professionals,” she continued. “The quiz may bring attention to mental health struggles and help people to prioritize self-care, but it is ultimately a self-diagnosis in the form of just 25 questions, leading to an online self-help program offering.”

Licensed counselor Allyssa Dziurlaj, LPC, agrees that an online quiz like 15Minutes4Me is a “double-edged sword.” Though it helps teenagers better understand their thoughts and feelings, it also can’t replace the personalized treatment that a professional counselor provides.

“At best, these surveys can encourage people to seek mental healthcare and serve to destigmatize mental health problems,” she said. “At worst, it can be a tool to self-diagnose improperly.”

Counselors like Dziurlaj have a love-hate relationship with TikTok in general. Many content creators use the platform to speak out about their own mental health struggles — but while this can normalize dealing with mental health issues, it can also inadvertently glorify them.

“[The mental health content on TikTok] can serve to glamorize mental health disorders,” Dziurlaj explained. Many of the 15Minutes4Me videos, for instance, are just jokes about how this the first time the test taker has gotten a perfect score on anything. Within the eating disorder community on TikTok, many users also like to joke about doing drugs to lose weight and make self-deprecating videos about some of the “classic” ED warning signs.

These videos don’t just romanticize mental health issues and eating disorders; for people who are in recovery, they are also triggering — and, given how unfathomable TikTok’s FYP is, are almost impossible to avoid.

“I also think that a lot of triggering content gets circulated around, causing certain viewers to experience distress,” Dziurlaj said. “More trigger warnings need to be used especially in the eating disorder recovery and the self-harm recovery communities.”

“Making fun or light of mental health issues can be more harmful than not talking about them at all,” Lin Sternlicht, LMHC, and Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, founders of Family Addiction Specialist, agreed. “Furthermore, posting about your mental health is not something that should be done with the purpose of garnering social media attention, but rather for the purposes of connection, support and healing. Posting on TikTok should never serve as a primary tool of addressing mental health issues, but rather can serve as an addition to other forms of support and self-care.”

Another significant issue on TikTok is the rapid spread of false information. Anyone can claim to be a licensed mental health professional on the platform when they’re commenting or making PSA videos. Plus, nobody fact-checks the videos that go out on TikTok or other popular social media platforms, and once a video goes viral, there’s no stopping it.

“Many people believe themselves an expert who are not [and] it can be difficult to delineate information from misinformation,” explained Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College. “And generally speaking, incorrect information can be worse than no information at all.”

Ultimately, social media — and trends like the 15Minutes4Me test — have increased awareness about online mental health resources, which is inarguably a good thing. However, a 25-question quiz can only do so much, which is why therapists and mental health counselors encourage teens to seek real, personalized help if they are struggling with a mental health problem.

“TikTok is not treatment, [and] mistaking posting and watching for treatment can be detrimental,” Dr. Saltz said. “For almost all diagnosable psychiatric conditions, TikTok alone is certainly not an adequate treatment.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) hotline offers free, confidential consultations 24/7, 365 days a year. You can reach them by calling 1-800-662-4357.

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