Psych ward TikTok: A place where teens share stories of their mental health struggles
‘There is an implicit encouragement on the platform to copy others’
Whether it’s the distorted world of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story Asylum or Leonardo Dicaprio playing a murderous psychopath in Shutter Island, the psych ward has often been depicted as a dark and dingy place of concrete walls and thick metal bars, where the dangerous and deluded are shut away for the protection of the general public. However, psych ward TikTok seeks to dispel these tropes through stories, skits and even collaborations with mental health carers, with the ultimate aim to show that these hospitals are actually incredibly normal environments with normal people in them.
Audiences are split over this subculture of the app. On the one hand, videos like these can demystify an environment that many have built judgements against, but there is also an argument that videos discussing themes of self-harm and suicide could potentially harm more impressionable viewers.
@lifeofahomieIF ANY OF YALL TRY AND FIGURE OUT WHERE I AM AND TADDLE I WILL FULL DELETE MY ACCOUNT AND CRY FOREVER ##fyp ##xyzbca ##pov ##foryou ##psychward♬ original sound – sebastian.
Mia Vaughan Evans, an 18-year-old inpatient on a psychiatric ward in Cornwall, had amassed a quarter of a million followers on TikTok by documenting her day to day struggles with mental health whilst living in an institution before her account was banned. She spoke to Refinery29 about a particular video showing her running away from her carers, which was liked over two million times since its upload: “I didn’t get in any trouble because I only do pranks with staff who will get the joke and I ask for their permission before uploading the video.”
Many psychiatric hospitals have a policy that only allows its patients to use phones supervised when contacting family members, so it is quite a rarity for people to have mobiles in their possession, let alone film TikToks. Mia Vaughan said that of the nine NHS wards she’s been admitted to over the past 18 months, five have allowed phones.
@miavaughanevans26rip ##foryou ##foryoupage ##psychward ##fyp ##ripmyaccount♬ Funny Laugh no no no – Sound Effect
Honey Langcaster-James, chartered psychologist and director of On Set Welfare, a company which provides mental health first aid training for celebrities, reality stars and production companies, told The Tab that this behaviour can lead to serious consequences: “People who have large online followings need to be very aware that there will be impressionable people watching their activities. You can incite behaviour in others by broadcasting what you do.
“In the past, for example, people have shared selfies taken in precarious positions, and then others have followed suit and had accidents. I think a similar process could happen when influencers share footage of themselves doing pranks or getting up to mischief. Psychological studies show that this behaviour can influence other people to follow suit.”
Having phones in psychiatric institutions is a divisive topic in that there’s an argument to be had between them distracting from important work being done and actually helping with therapy. Honey tells us that phones can even be the causing factor for some of the behaviours that may have made them hospitalised to begin with: “Sometimes institutions will say ‘please don’t be on your phones’ because they want you to focus on your wellbeing and your therapeutic need, rather than to remain connected to the social environment from which your problems may be occurring in the first place.
“When schools say you’re not allowed your mobile phone in the classroom, often it’s so that you can be fully present in the classroom. When a hospital says ‘please put your phones away’, if you’re there for your own benefit and for therapy, then it may be to ensure that you can fully engage with that therapeutic environment and community and not be distracted by your previous social community.”
TikTok videos garner traction with any dance or trend that proves popular. A dance that Charli D’Amelio invents will spread like wildfire, not because she’s the one doing it, but because the video gets lots of likes and can be repeated by others to get the same desired results. Some people argue that showing evidence of self-harm and receiving millions of likes and views whilst doing so can romanticise these issues.
Callum* suffered from severe depression between the ages of 14 and 18, which culminated in a suicide attempt: “It wasn’t anything too extreme, I just used to have breakdowns and go a bit nuts. Sometimes I would hear voices but not I’m not sure if that was self-constructed through anxiety. Eventually, I was taken to the hospital – I had blacked out but I think I attempted suicide. From then I had weekly therapy and was prescribed antidepressants (citalopram) which I didn’t take but eventually grew up out of being a moody little kid.”
When asked whether allowing teenagers on psych wards to make TikTok videos like these is a good idea, Callum told us that he believes these kinds of videos are dangerous: “I think it’s dumb as fuck, because it romanticises problems around mental health like Tumblr, which used to and still romanticises self-harm. Remember we used to suck off Skins producers for how attractive ‘fucked up’ was? Same thing.”
Lauren* disagrees, and believes it’s important for others to see this side of healthcare, as well as therapeutic for the person making the videos. She was hospitalised for several weeks after her self harm started to become more regular, but she believes that letting young people do something that they enjoy whilst in hospital is therapy in itself: “Patients should be allowed to film TikToks if it preoccupies their minds. If it’s not hurting anyone else and stops them from potentially hurting themselves, how can it possibly be seen as a bad thing? It’s common for psychiatric wards to allow patients to partake in hobby activities like painting as a form of therapy, so why not go with the flow and apply this frame of mind to modern forms of expression?”
The use of TikTok in such institutions could certainly be argued as therapeutic. It is well known that the encouragement of creativity, namely art, is used as a treatment for people who are working at their mental rehabilitation. The Bethlem Gallery, an attachment of London’s Bethlem Hospital where people are treated for mental health issues, supports and displays artists who are currently at the hospital or have previously been admitted. On the Bethlem Gallery website, you are met with a quote from one of their patients that reads: “Pills are ok, counselling is ok and it will get you back on the streets, but what keeps your mind alive is what you learn here. That’s what it’s about – keeping your spirit alive.”
Honey Langcaster-James agrees that fostering creative outlets is a great way to reduce symptoms for many: “Allowing young people to use social media as a platform for self-expression, whether it’s TikTok or any other platform, opens the potential for a creative outlet, self-expression, and remaining connected with your online community.
“For some people, this can help them to reduce anxiety – if you’ve had to go into hospital, maintaining contact with your social network, even if that networking online, can be very beneficial to reduce anxiety and stress.”
However, it’s the very concept of normalising graphic images and the discussion of poor mental health that proves to be a double-edged sword, making it impossible to say if psych ward TikTok is a profoundly good place to be. Although it clearly divides opinion, this section of the app seems to generally be a positive transaction for both sides… for now. The people making them get to have fun and educate, whilst their videos are very well received on the app, gaining hundreds of thousands of likes from people that are genuinely interested in seeing what really goes on.
Lee*, who was hospitalised for a week in 2015, believes that these TikTok videos do well to break the image that the psychiatric hospital is a scary place, but simultaneously prove problematic by virtue of the app’s “trend-obsessed” structure: “These TikToks show that the people in hospitals aren’t ‘crazy’ or deluded, but are actually normal patients like any you’d see in a normal hospital. People instantly think of criminals and serial killers when they think of psych wards, whereas these videos show that this just isn’t the case.
@miavaughanevans26sorry had to repost one of my viral vids ##foryou ##foryoupage ##magic ##psychward ##psychwardstories♬ original sound – Mia Vaughan Evans
“However, when it comes to the whole point of TikTok, which is to be obsessed with trends and following what others are doing, there’s plenty to be said about how putting content like this on the app could have negative repercussions with younger audiences.”
In September, 15-year-old Chloe Marie Phillips died after taking part in the “Benadryl Challenge”, a trend that saw TikTokers take large amounts of the antihistamine on camera in an attempt to hallucinate. This is only the latest in a series of trends on the app that have been replicated out of curiosity and the pursual of popularity.
Honey echoes Lee’s statement regarding the model of video sharing on the app being contributory to trends like these being repeated by acknowledging that even the harmful trends are just as likely to spread: “The idea that a TikTok craze can garner so much traction that everyone will copy shows there is an implicit encouragement on the platform to start trends. This has to be carefully thought about when the platform then may encourage trends that aren’t actually very helpful to people.
“It is brilliant that people are sharing their stories, and reducing stigma and opening up and talking about mental health. It’s brilliant that we’ve got to a point in society where people open up about that conversation. But we also need to be aware that we do live still in a world where there is stigma and there is discrimination. And so we need to still think carefully about what we share online about our own lives and our own stories.”
TikTok didn’t respond to our request for comment.