Instagram Psychology is a Slippery Slope Towards Misunderstanding Trauma

Mistaking common life experiences with mental illness is dangerous for everyone

Does the doctor make home visits anymore? Maybe not, but your psychiatrist may have an Instagram account now. In the age of tele-therapy, I suppose this feels somewhat par for the course, and hey, I’m pro-accessibility. Let’s face it: The folks who need mental healthcare the most cannot afford the session fees or medication, sometimes even with insurance.

Moreover, Over 26 million individuals experiencing a mental health illness are going untreated in the U.S as of this year. So it may be easy to imagine a person suffering coming across an Instagram photo of a bulleted list of reasons why they may be traumatized and think, “Oh my god, these are all me, this makes so much sense, and I feel so validated!” I love validation too, I really do, it’s critical to the work I do as a Certified Peer Specialist as well as my own recovery. But misinformation should not be the price of admission for validation.

As I discussed in a previous article, Being Traumatized Does Not Mean You Have PTSD, there is a big difference between life experiences and trauma. While human suffering is a universal experience, creating a deficit-model with broad and vague definitions of “trauma” traps normal human experiences like heartbreak, invalidation, and loneliness into a trauma model; it invalidates PTSD survivors with life-impairing symptoms.

One Instagram psychologist, Nicole LePera, a registered psychologist previously practicing out of Philadelphia, PA who goes by @the.holistic.psychologist on Instagram, started a trend called “self-healing,” which is defined as one’s own sheer force of will to “self-parent,” guided by her colorful, overly simplified bullet pointed lists of “symptoms” or behaviors. She refers to her goal as a psychologist on Instagram as “guiding people to their own spiritual awakening.”

Here, LaPera relates “spiritual awakening” as the medicine for “collective trauma,” but doesn’t really define what “collective trauma” is.

I’ll be blunt: This promotes unhealthy ideals of individualism — that is, putting the responsibility of the afflicted person’s healing only on themselves. Unlike interdependence, which most licensed therapists incorporate into their intervention work, individualism says that the person seeking treatment is the only person who can help themselves. While we’ve heard these sentiments before, (“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink; no one will love you until you love yourself,”) we may not realize how harmful it can be for a person in any kind of recovery to believe there are no outside opportunities for support that are valid.

Self-help is comforting, but not necessarily evidence-based; it does not account for real-world impacts of trauma within culture, class, and identity. And while spirituality is an important tool to many we as human service workers see for our client’s wellness and feelings of purpose, they don’t explain the effects of clinical trauma, nor do they treat it. But by convincing folks en masse that the problem and the solution lie within themselves or that wellness is achieved through a series of personal choices, LaPera, and many others have laid the foundations of their business model.

After devouring LePera’s pastel-painted feed, in an effort to learn more, consumers are encouraged to go through paywalls to access “worksheets” and more information, including live Q+A’s, “exclusive how-to information,” and other forms of the so-called self-healing interventions. Her plan, called “The Selfhealers Circle,” is an online community that members pay either $24/month or $264/year to join. It strikes me as strange that, if the answers to healing my trauma lie within myself, why I can’t just continue journaling or doing yoga to work them out. Can we say: Commercialization of vulnerable people?

Ethical practice looks like a blend of personal tools, community inclusions, and support from family and friends, possibly in addition to medical supports identified by a doctor and chosen as an additional means of support by the client themselves. Whatever the combination, the fact of the matter is this: No one can do recovery completely alone, and spinning the tale that healing is self-driven leaves people more open to literally buying what these “self-healers” are selling.

Haven’t we all felt nervous at a party? In a new group? In school? Is that really trauma? By her assertion, there is no “mental illness,” only trauma, which is defined loosely and non-scientifically. These are simply views, and hell, maybe they’re even valid forms of reframing and processing what is within the “normal” threshold of difficult experiences, but they do invalidate genuine neurological impairments that come from witnessing/experiencing things like extreme violence, abuse, and assault. I guess I just can’t accept that someone who felt unheard by their parents is traumatized the same way sexual assault survivors may be. Sure, this isn’t the pain Olympics, but we risk folks without trauma suddenly “remembering” an event in their life as traumatic, who spend time and money on chasing it down.

Just as essential oils are a multi-billion dollar, holistic industry, they are not a replacement for prescription medication or other clinical treatments and have been found virtually ineffective at treating the issues they’re marketed for; neither is “self-healing” useful for mitigating normal (and difficult/upsetting/stressful) life experience.

This is not meant to discount the power of online communities within the healing process across a spectrum of experiences, though. Communities of survivors and peer support are valid modalities of coping. This account explicitly says they are not a professional and have a PTSD post explaining that only 8% of people who experience trauma will develop PTSD. This is an example of scientifically-driven, responsible peer support, not psychiatry.

The point I’m trying to get across here is not meant to be exclusionary. However, promoting an over-glorified version of self-help as psychotherapy does a few harmful things. It commodifies the research and practice of what is meant to be a science, a field that should be meticulously vetted and measured before any form of intervention is implemented. While some of what LePera includes in her feed, like breath work, does have some research to support its use in quelling anxiety and panic attacks, it is not a replacement for all other interventions, nor does it address the complexity of trauma. Overall, the self-healer trend has no footing in science, and consumers should be wary of where they get help from, as well as exercise caution in defining their experiences as something they may not be. In doing so they protect the validity of the field, the validity of people healing from trauma, and it protects folks from experiencing a trauma that never actually occurred in their otherwise happy childhoods.