Stigma still pervades Singaporean public opinion when it comes to mental health. “This is of concern as fear of stigma is thought to play a key role in the large treatment gap found in the adult population, and this could also present as an issue in the youth population. Besides avoiding treatment, youths may also lack social support if they find mental illness to be an embarrassing or taboo topic,” suggests Shirlene Pang in her research paper published in the British Medical Journal. 

An article from BioMed Central Psychiatry dives into what causes this stigma in Singaporean society. According to the article, being labelled as a person with mental illness or PMI is highly undesirable. ”Findings from this study suggest that certain factors which cause stigma are quite pervasive across different cultures, such as the fear towards PMI, and the perception that PMI are burdensome. The determinants of stigma identified which were more culturally-specific were related to the Chinese concept of “face”, beliefs in spiritual possession, and Asian conservative values. The determinants of stigma that surfaced in our study which were unique were the elitist mindset among Singaporeans and the perceived inability to handle interactions with PMI.” 

This is why social media and the content creators that populate it are critical in de-stigmatizing the subject of mental illness. In a lot of cases, especially in Singaporean households, social media content creators are the only source of much-needed affirmation that PMIs depend on for their wellness.  

If follower count is any indicator of this increased awareness, then there are signs of improvement. Content creators with a focus on mental wellness have a steadily growing audience which is great for eliminating the stigma. 

However, the rise of viewership is not all good news. Some experts are concerned that content creators may be causing more harm than good when sharing about certain critical subjects in the mental health niche.   

At the end of the day, influencers might only be drawing from their own limited experiences, or borrowing from the experiences of people they know. And these narrow experiences can cause some knowledge gaps that can result in content riddled with misinformation. Singapore psychiatrists and other mental health professionals such as psychotherapists, on the other hand, are trained specifically to help their patients through their mental illnesses. 

Why It’s Important to Discuss Mental Health Influencers Now 

As a result of the tumult being brought about by COVID-19, experts suspect that there is a mental health crisis looming on the horizon. This BBC piece, for example, suggests that OCD, depression, and anxiety are very real threats that can come from the measures we’re all taking for keeping COVID-19 at bay. For a country where mental health still has a strong stigma surrounding, the high chance of the onset of these mental illnesses can have a devastating effect. The current fear from mental health professionals is that Singaporeans who are afraid of the stigma might forgo going to a mental health clinic for depression treatment and instead rely solely on influencers. 

Content creators and influencers in the mental health niche are nothing new. From dominant social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, they create content that are fun and engaging which can be pretty useful in depressing times like these. Their content are often uplifting and enlightening which can give a sense of safety and much-needed but misplaced sense of stability. However, these types of content are mostly designed to entertain people to attract viewership, subscribers, and likes for the sake of monetization and not necessarily for medical accuracy. Such a situation can be a breeding ground for misinformation. 

So, it’s important to raise concerns now rather than later when the potential effects of influencer-led misinformation have already spread. 

The Problem with Social Media Influencers in the Mental Health Niche 

While social media influencers talking about mental health topics probably don’t have ill intentions, they’re susceptible to sharing false information. It’s important to understand that content creators and influencers are not mental health practitioners who trained for years in university and applied for a license to practice their profession.  

They’re Not Motivated to Treat Mental Illness 

Content creators often share information with good intentions. However, their main motivation is to churn out engaging content as often as possible to grow their audience and increase their ad revenues. And with this goal in mind, scientific accuracy takes a back seat to their financial gains. They, therefore, may resort to clickbait titles and inaccurate interpretations of research papers to suit what their audiences want to hear.  

The problem, however, is that some influencers can be so convincing that their followers take their words as indisputable facts. Some influencers even go so far as claiming that what they’re saying are proven facts when, in fact, they’re inaccurate interpretations from a textbook that lacks context at best, or sometimes, are outright outdated. 

They Are Not Equipped to Talk About Mental Health 

The truth is that content creators have their fingers on the pulse of their audiences. They know what information is going get their audiences to click on their content. For this reason, they’re most likely to have more followers, engagement, and better-quality videos and content than professional mental health practitioners on the same platforms. 

However, a subject as complex and nuanced as mental health can easily be misconstrued especially without the lenses of proper context or experience. Professionals who have studied for years would have more context and, more importantly, experience than talented amateurs who’ve read a couple of scientific journals. 

According to Morgan Sung of Mashable SE Asia, “The discussion around mental health on TikTok walks the fine line between alerting viewers to seek treatment and encouraging them to self-diagnose based on videos that often mislabel widely felt emotions.” This is a dangerous predicament as those that actually need treatment might forgo going to a mental health clinic or seeking help from a qualified Singapore psychiatrist, psychologistor both. 

They’re Not Trained or Licensed to Treat Mental Illness  

Perhaps the most important issue with social media influencers talking about mental health is that there are basically no repercussions if their content happens to result in harm to their audiences. It’s important to remember that they’re not licensed professionals who are held accountable by licensing boards and are even bound by law to do no harm. 

There are also scientific methods and tools in the mental health profession that are not accessible to social media content creators and influencers. The Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing method, for example, require plenty of training to be able to develop a level of competence worthy of practice.