Whether you’re a fan of social media or not, there’s no denying its influence. It can be hard to look away as mental health videos go viral, fellow therapists amass millions of Instagram followers, and clients start to self-diagnose via TikTok. Going social as a mental health professional comes with a number of potential risks and rewards.
You may be tempted to join the fray but aren’t sure where to start. Maybe you began seeing clients long before the rise of social media, or maybe you don’t feel confident in navigating the ethical boundaries of running into clients on Facebook.
Therapist and author Matthias Barker, LMHC, has found his stride on social. We sat down with him to discuss how mental health professionals can use these platforms in a responsible way.
The benefits of connecting
There are certainly risks in using social media as a therapist, and we’ll get to those next. But for many clinicians who want to expand their practice or reach a broader audience, there are advantages to having a professional social media presence.
Social media can help strengthen the therapeutic alliance. “Social media can be a sort of touchpoint for people to understand your style,” Barker says. “They hear a little of your voice, how you approach things, and a bit of who you are.” Because the therapeutic alliance is built on energy and chemistry, he explains, getting that preview of what you’re like can help potential clients feel safe about working with you.
Social media can help elevate your career. For Barker, the biggest perk is that social media has helped him engage with colleagues and mentors. “It has allowed me to connect with leaders in my field,” he says. “In one case, I had the opportunity to establish a mentorship-apprenticeship relationship with a hero of mine. I really believe social media paved the way for that.”
Social media lets you help steer the conversation. Barker understands having concerns about being on social media as a therapist, but he also notes that the cultural conversation around mental health would benefit from more careful and conscientious professional voices. “If you stay quiet, you leave the sheep open to the wolves,” he says. “If no one figures out how to go viral saying the right thing, then all that’s left is the misinformation.”
Avoiding potential pitfalls
There are risks specific to talking about mental health on public social platforms: For example, you may be concerned that followers will take your advice out of context or mistake it for a therapy substitute. Barker has six tips to help you navigate those murky waters.
Write a strong disclaimer. On Instagram, where he has more than 400,000 followers, Barker explicitly states in his bio that his posts are “not therapy” and that he will never offer therapeutic advice via private message. Some clinicians offer a similar disclaimer in a post pinned to the top of their profile. “Be clear in the language, such as ‘I’m not your mental health provider,’” says Barker.
Disclose and discuss. In addition to the standard policies laid out in his disclosure and intake forms, Barker lets clients know how he creates his social media content. “My content is a synthesis of different insights collected during session. Sometimes I’m using descriptors that might match something that sounds like it’s relevant in your life, but it’s always a collective,” he says. “‘Most people who have been betrayed might describe their betrayal like this,’ or ‘Many people who are angry at their adult kid use these kinds of adjectives.’”
Be open to questions. As well as stating your policies clearly in writing, Barker recommends having a dedicated conversation about social media to address any client hesitations. “Throughout our relationship, I encourage anyone to come to me with a question or concern,” says Barker.
Prioritize your clients’ feelings. Even when you’re intentional about keeping real client experiences out of your social posts, content is subjective. It’s possible that a client may see themselves in something you post and ask you to take it down. If this happens, you should honor their sense of privacy and safety.
Set boundaries around personal information. Before you dive into social media, establishing clear parameters can help prevent problems down the line. Remember: You get to decide how much or how little you share about yourself with your audience.
When he first began creating content, Barker talked openly about his family and children, but that has changed as his follower count grows. “My wife and I recently decided we didn’t want to share stuff about the kids anymore,” he says. “I talk about being a parent, and I don’t hide that part of myself, but I’m not sharing pictures or videos of the kids.” Only you can decide what you’re comfortable with, says Barker, and that may change over time. “Some people are really conversational and share a lot, while others hold back personal stuff, and that works too.”
If privacy is a concern for you and your loved ones, consider setting up separate social media accounts accessible only to close friends and family. You can make a personal account private and link it to an email address that’s not associated with your practice. It may also be worth noting in your disclosure statement that you don’t accept client requests to connect with your personal social media accounts, though they’re welcome to follow your professional ones.
Consider the long term. “I didn’t start out to build a following,” says Barker. “I started putting out videos that I enjoyed making about things I enjoyed talking about.” But before you hit record on your phone, Barker suggests asking yourself if this is something you’d like to do for the long term. If the answer is no, consider finding a different way to join the public conversation around mental health.
“I can tell you from my personal conversations with people who have large followings: It is miserable to be famous for something you don’t like doing,” says Barker. “Because then your livelihood depends on it. Your professionalism, your money—everything depends on talking about something you kind of hate talking about.”
Finding other ways to connect
Putting in the time and energy to create a social media presence may not appeal to you, or it may feel out of reach. Perhaps you have an especially full client load or the technology seems daunting, but you still want to be part of the conversation. Barker says there are ways clinicians can stay engaged without social media, and you may already be doing some of them.
“There’s still a world where you can have a private, understated presence online and still collect a client base and build a reputation,” says Barker. “Networking with other clinicians, gathering referrals, and attending conferences or places you know in your community are all ways to engage in the larger cultural conversation. It will give people a chance to see you as a trusted voice. There’s certainly a grassroots way to build your career, and I don’t think that’s going away.”