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Refreshingly Real or Romanticising? Dissecting Mental Health TikTok

© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri

From grippy sock vacations to #depressioncleaning, TikTokers are getting really real about mental health.

TikTok has become the dominant social platform for Generation Z and the site of numerous conversations about a range of social issues. One of those is mental health, with TikTokers sharing their personal experiences in a unique, raw way. Through grippy sock vacations and #depressioncleaning, let’s explore some of the trends in mental health TikTok content.

© Video by TikTok

If you’ve never heard of a ‘grippy sock vacation,’ let me explain: the term refers to a stay in the psych ward, where patients often wear special slipper socks. The grippy sock vacation tag on TikTok has more than 60 million views and is a catalogue of videos from inside mental hospitals around the world, with patients showing the specific, small details of their experiences there. From packing bags before a stay to showing off the craft projects they’ve made inside to the relief of coming home, many people have documented the whole cycle of a hospitalisation. One perspective on this content is that it normalises this experience, making it feel less intimidating and breaking down the stigma perpetuated by media portrayals of ‘asylums’ full of dangerous and unstable people. Creators often answer audience questions about their experiences and debunk misconceptions. It can also shine a light on the mistreatment patients face and the horror and dehumanisation of being incarcerated involuntarily, restrained, or force-fed. TikTokers can share their traumas and use humour to cope with their experience. In doing so, they might find community with other survivors of this system and encourage outsiders to reconsider their biases about mental health in-patients.

On the other hand, even within the tag itself, there’s disagreement about the impact of the content. Some videos are concerned that the term, and the videos using it, are glamourising the experience of hospitalisation or downplaying the harms involved. In particular, the use of the word ‘vacation,’ even in jest, is a sticking point for many critics. Some videos even raise the concern that viewers might be influenced to harm themselves in order to be hospitalised, since videos on the platform have made it seem desirable. However, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence of this fear actually coming true, and the TikTokers using the ‘grippy sock vacation’ tag aren’t glossing over the difficult parts of their hospital experience, even if they are using a tongue in cheek, humorous term to talk about them.

© Video by TikTok

Another TikTok phenomenon that sheds light on a more stigmatised aspect of mental health is #depressioncleaning. This tag is even more popular than grippy sock vacation, having accumulated an enormous 257 million views. In the videos, creators struggling with depression show themselves cleaning their rooms or homes, which have often built up a lot of dirt and clutter during a depressive episode. In the comments, rather than receiving judgement, they are told how proud their audience is. Many commenters share how ‘relatable’ and ‘real’ this kind of messy (pun intended) mental health content feels for them. The videos often take a motivational or lighthearted tone but, nonetheless, show the difficult reality of depression and an aspect which is often kept private: how it can impair you from completing even basic household tasks or maintaining hygiene. Sometimes, creators even enlist help from friends or family, demonstrating the importance of reaching out for help even when we fear shame or judgement for the less palatable manifestations of our mental health difficulties. Just like videos from inside the psych ward, these TikToks can help build community and break down stigma. They can even offer practical help for those struggling, with users exchanging tips in videos and comments on how to maintain a cleaning routine while depressed. It’s also hard to argue that this content romanticises mental health difficulties: it’s often the furthest thing from a curated, aesthetic Instagram grid you’ll find online, showing everything from moldy iced coffee cups to years-old limescale build-up. 

The way we talk about mental health on social media is a complicated issue that dates back a lot further than the first TikToks. Subcultures around mental health on platforms like Tumblr have long been the subject of both praise and critique online, often centred on the delicate balance between destigmatising these experiences and romanticising them. The same tension seems to be playing out again on TikTok, but I don’t think its battle lines are exactly the same. In an era where sanitised, marketable mental health discourses, encouraging us to ‘just talk’ or pay for one of the dozens of subscription meditation apps, have gone mainstream, TikTok’s direct dispatches from creators’ most difficult moments might have the capacity to cut through the noise, and feel authentic in a way that corporate posturing on the subject has made increasingly rare. I’m at least hopeful that these short, viral clips might help real, raw, lived experiences reclaim some ground in the mental health awareness movement, but I know a lot more still needs to be done to really change the conversation.

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