ΧΑΜΟΓΕΛΑ ΑΠΟ 4/11/2022 ΕΩΣ 5/11/2022

How 'Instagram therapy' helps normalize Latinx mental healthcare

Paging Dr. Internet, we need a diagnosis. In this series, Mashable examines the online world's influence on our health and prescribes new ways forward.

If you've spent time on Instagram in the past couple of years, you've likely encountered Instagram therapy — motivational quotations and educational content developed by therapists and delivered in aesthetically pleasing posts.

Recently, the number of Instagram therapy accounts tailored to people of color has grown. While such accounts can't replace actual therapy, their content helps destigmatize mental healthcare, validate followers' experiences, and create a sense of community. These benefits are especially important for the Latinx community in the U.S., which faces unique barriers to care — from stigma to language and cultural gaps.

Latinx individuals show similar vulnerabilities to mental illness as the general population, but they face disparities in treatment. According to a 2019 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report, the prevalence of mental illness is about 22 percent for white adults and 18 percent for Latinx adults. However, when it comes to getting care, approximately 50 percent of white adults compared to 33 percent of Latinx adults received mental health services.

Overcoming barriers to care

While mental healthcare remains stigmatized in the United States, the stigma is more pronounced in the Latinx community. This community is diverse, but many members share similar values, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots advocacy organization, such as strong family bonds, connections to extended family and social networks, and a resilient approach to life and work that values adapting in the face of adversity. While these factors are generally positive, they can contribute to stigmatization and a hesitation to seek mental healthcare. Strong family bonds can create a reluctance to ask for help outside the home and a preference for keeping personal issues private. Connections to extended networks may result in a sense of shame at the possibility of a diagnosis. And resilience may mean that asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness.

Latinx therapists, like Kelly Rodriguez, are using social media accounts to overcome this. Rodriguez is a licensed marriage and family therapist and perinatal mental health certified professional based in Southern California. She runs @allthefeels.therapy on Instagram and specializes in anxiety, trauma, and depression.

Stigma is rooted in either getting the wrong information or not having the correct sources of information, Rodriguez said.

"What we don't know, we don’t understand and it's scary. It's easier to say I don’t believe in [therapy] because I don't understand it, and reject it," she added.

One of her more popular posts is a bilingual list of misconceptions about therapy, attempting to break down such views and expose the realities of mental health treatment.

Similarly, Juriana Hernandez, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Santa Clarita, California, created the account @_amortherapy_ to normalize therapy in the Latinx community.

"A lot of people think that therapy is for white people or the privileged and not for everyone else," Hernandez said. She's using her posts to debunk this assumption, focusing on relationships and narcissistic abuse in particular.

"A lot of people think that therapy is for white people or the privileged and not for everyone else."

Besides stigma, a language barrier may prevent Latinx individuals from getting care, or they may simply want to work with someone who looks like them, speaks like them, and understands their culture. An overwhelming majority — 84 percent — of psychologists are white, and only 6 percent are Latinx, so this can be difficult. Latinx therapy accounts highlight bilingual content and, perhaps just as importantly, providers who look like their followers. Both factors help normalize care and show that there are Latinx therapists who can relate to their clients but also provide understanding and support for mental health topics.

Finally, as NAMI explains, some in Latinx communities may not get treatment because they don't know the indicators or symptoms of mental health issues.

"Sometimes people don't know that what they're experiencing is a mental health challenge," Hernandez said. "They just might think there's something wrong with them."

Hernandez validates followers' experiences and shows that they're not alone in their struggles. For example, her post about gaslighting from November 2019 was particularly resonant. She shared sample phrases an abuser would use and described the emotional and psychological consequences in a straightforward way. The post still gets engagement nearly two years later. For example, one follower explained how people were saying a friend was gaslighting them and while they were confused by the term, the friend "has said pretty much all of this before." Another commented that it "is going to be such a great challenge for me to not react [to the gaslighting] but I'm so happy I'm aware of what's happening.”

Avoiding misinformation risks

Therapy content on social media can be helpful, but there are risks. For example, posts are no replacement for personalized therapy. They should be treated as educational content and a stepping stone to further care.

Rodriguez, for example, keeps her content simple to avoid bringing up triggering topics that require nuance and more in-depth discussion. Her posts that get the most attention include practical, specific advice, such as end-of-the-year mental health tips, where she encouraged followers to practice gratitude and self-kindness and maintain a realistic mindset that doesn't compare their experiences to others.

Another concern is that people who post about mental health, such as coaches or wellness enthusiasts, are easily confused with licensed professionals making similar content. When unqualified individuals share information and followers confuse them for credentialed experts, misinformation occurs as the content is understood as legitimate. Generally this content appears as vague, feel-good advice with no supporting context or specific recommendations. The danger lies in the fact that followers aren't getting the support they may need, whether because the posts themselves are unhelpful or because they're getting a false sense that the content is enough to support their mental health.

Compared to other platforms like TikTok, Instagram has built-in features to help combat such risks. Instagram allows click-through links and the caption limit is rather long at 2,200 characters compared to TikTok's 150. These features offer additional space to include information like full titles, licensing information, and other relevant details. License numbers are easily verifiable online, on individual states' licensing board sites, by simply inputting the provider's information. Followers can check credentials and be sure they're seeing content from legitimate providers. (Despite these benefits for therapy content, Instagram's comparative culture can be the cause of mental health issues too, especially for teen girls).

"I like to remind people: Be mindful of who you follow. Do your research. Google those you follow to be sure they're who they say they are. And be mindful of terminology because therapy, counseling, coaching, psychiatry, etc. mean different things," Hernandez said. To illustrate, mental health counselors diagnose and treat mental and emotional health disorders and support clients as they navigate relationship conflicts and life stressors, according to Forbes. They also help clients through talk therapy. Psychiatrists assess and diagnose mental health disorders as well, but they can prescribe the proper medication when needed. Coaches, on the other hand, aren't necessarily trained to help people facing mental illnesses and aren't accredited in the same way counselors and psychiatrists are.

Extending support beyond social media

Instagram therapy by and for Latinx individuals offers unique benefits to improving mental health access. In Hernandez's experience, people first find her Instagram, then go to her website to learn more, and eventually call to set up further care. If she's not the right fit for them or if they're not in California, where she is licensed, she uses the Instagram account Latinx Therapy to connect them to a provider.

As founder Adriana Alejandre described in a statement, Latinx Therapy is not just an Instagram account, but also "a multimedia community that destigmatizes mental health myths, provides education to eliminate taboos of therapy, and advocates to combat mental health stigmas." More specifically, it provides a national directory of Latinx therapists and support for mental health professionals of color. It bridges online engagement and real-life support.

Alejandre is a trauma therapist and activist, bringing both backgrounds to Latinx Therapy. "Our platforms exist to encourage anyone who wants to heal to know that they can heal with a provider of color, and that if they want to choose to build a career within the field of psychology, that they are not alone and we will support them," she said. Beyond care, the network is empowering Latinx individuals to become providers themselves. Latinx Therapy offers resources to support the aspiring (and practicing) therapist, ranging from a library of suggested books to bilingual reference materials to FAQs about the field.

With more Latinx therapists comes a better ability to reflect the diverse background of the Latinx community, something Hernandez sees the benefit of firsthand in her practice and through @_amortherapy_.

"How do we break these patterns and change generations? It's through social media. It has negative aspects, but if you use it in a way that can provide information to a lot of people it can be very effective and very helpful," Hernandez said.

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. ET, or email info@nami.org. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.

Marissa Cruz Lemar is a writer and health communications consultant. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and Insider, among others. Follow her on Twitter: @mcruzmissile

from Mashable