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Instagram therapists, and their DMs, are open for business

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Pandemic mental health advice for the masses

Jamie Castillo, Alyssa Lia Mancao

Instagram Live therapy sessions can be jarring. An iPhone ping occasionally goes off, the therapist forgets to turn off the press conference she was watching before going live, or the sound drops out momentarily. Even beyond the technical difficulties, watching an influencer chat with her therapist feels intrusive and wrong, but, eventually, as the Live levels out and everything works as it should, the therapist can get to the nitty-gritty. Conversation flows, and viewers get to benefit from hearing another person’s anxieties expressed out loud.

Influencer Katie Sands and her therapist Stephanie Lesk started weekly live chats last week for Sands’ more than 200,000 followers. They discuss COVID-19 and the realities of working and living through a pandemic. They talk about financial stress and how strange everything is right now — presumably, feelings other people are working through, too.

Other therapists began bringing COVID-19 content to Instagram a few weeks ago, and as more countries around the world started telling residents to stay home, the volume of accounts posting outbreak-oriented advice grew. Therapists across the US are now offering virtual sessions, open workshops, opening their DMs up for questions, and partnering with influencers to get their messages out. They’re trying to find a way to bring calm to a severely stressful and anxiety-inducing pandemic, especially for people who can’t afford their own therapist.

Katie Sands and her therapist Stephanie Lesk.

“Why not have a conversation about it and just kind of allow people in the room to say, ‘Look, we’ve got to make choices here [about] how we want to move through this thing,’” Lesk said. “You have to find some way to take control of this thing.”

Direct contact with a therapist is one option, and Instagram offers a way for therapists and clients to connect. Jamie Castillo, who leads the Arizona-based therapy group Find Your Shine, piloted a virtual support group for Arizona residents this week, advertising it on her popular Instagram account. The group gives people a place to “focus on self-soothing strategies and empowerment, rather than talking about the pandemic and perpetuating fear.” It costs $20 per person.

“During this time, we’re going to also try and delicately talk about the silver lining that we can take in terms of increasing empathy for people around us and focusing on the collective good versus every man for himself kind of mentality,” she says.

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What else are you still enjoying??

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Castillo’s Instagram account also offers supportive posts and advice on topics such as infertility, relationship conflict, and trauma. But recently, her posts have a different, more targeted purpose: helping people through quarantine. She only addresses COVID-19 by name several times while the rest of her posts center on the idea of cancellations, social distancing, and media overexposure.

“What’s cool with Instagram is to obviously not act as a replacement for therapy, but to kind of close those gaps and reduce those barriers that people all over the world face when it comes to getting mental health care,” Castillo says. Her posts can’t apply to everyone at once, “but people have said the posts make them think about things in a different way or encourage them to give themselves grace.”

Instagram also allows therapists to share how they’re able to help, says Alyssa Lia Mancao, a therapist in Los Angeles. “People normally see therapists as kind of this thing that happens behind closed doors,” she says. “You don’t really know what’s going on; you don’t really know what it’s like. It’s something that we don’t talk about as much as we should.”

Mancao pivoted her content to topics that speak more directly to the crisis. The pandemic pushed her to go live on her own page where she took questions from viewers, and she’s planning to take over the Stories of a separate, finance-oriented account, The Financial Diet, to reach its followers and give mental health tips.

“Most [therapists] aren’t taking any new clients right now and don’t want to start out a relationship through a video,” Mancao said. “Being able to provide at least this information through Instagram, it’s really helpful for the people who haven’t had the luxury to be in therapy and get to therapy right now.”

Governments and organizations have recognized how important mental health is during this crisis, too. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week that more than 6,000 mental health professionals signed up to assist people via a public hotline, which he encouraged people to call into to talk through their feelings. UNICEF published an article highlighting ways in which teenagers can care for their mental health.

Other therapists are using Instagram to advertise their services, knowing there’s a need. Instagram gives therapists the ability to market themselves and their messages widely, making it an important platform for independent therapists trying to find new clients.

Hilary Weinstein, a therapist in New York City, has advertised on influencers’ pages before and has started doing so again as she plans to expand her practice. In the past, she reached out to meme accounts, like @sobasicicanteven, and offered to pay them to share posts advertising her services. This time around, she’s doing the same thing. We Met At Acme, a popular Instagram account and podcast, reposted her because of a partnership. She says these posts have resulted in many people reaching out to her, although with insurance and figuring out whether they’re a good match, that number can dwindle.

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Take good care of yourself, friends

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Online therapy had already been growing, Weinstein says, and the pandemic’s unknown length will help it grow. “That kind of sparked a lot of anxiety in and of itself, like how long am I going to have to be alone and be alone with my thoughts?” Weinstein says. “That’s never healthy, especially so for extended periods of time, so I think it just really lends itself to the whole teletherapy trend that was kind of on the rise anyway.”

Instagram therapy isn’t a substitute for an actual person giving care, these therapists say, but it’s a step toward destigmatizing mental health, and it gives people a clearer idea of how they can care for themselves during this challenging time.

“A lot of people feel ready to go to therapy, but not a lot of people have the privilege, you know, financially, [they] can’t go to therapy,” Mancao says. “There’s so much stigma about therapy in different cultures and different families, but I think that being able to follow a therapist on Instagram bridges that barrier and really helps people connect to information that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”