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Photography Ben Blennerhassett

Inside the murky world of psych ward TikTok

Is psych ward TikTok really ‘destigmatising’ the reality of the mental health care system, or is it triggering vulnerable users?

I’m scrolling through a sea of “siren eyes vs doe eyes” and dance routine videos when I see a TikTok that stops my thumb in my tracks. In the video, titled “first time at the psych ward”, a young girl alternatively plays the part of a newbie patient and a regular at a mental health facility. “Don’t bother looking for screws up there, they’re all rounded and not sharp,” says the creator as the psych ward regular, adding that there are no hand sanitisers, sporks or pointed pencils either (the subtext being: “you can’t get away with self-harming so easily here”).

Curious, I clicked on the #psychward hashtag in the caption and found myself tumbling down a TikTok rabbit hole. With 1.4 billion views and over 100,000 videos, this subgenre where predominantly young creators share their psych ward experiences is thriving. The earliest videos date back to 2020, but new TikToks are being added to the hashtag each week.

Some of the content is filmed in real-time at psych wards and follows a ‘day in the life’ format, as the patient attends group therapy, paints, journals, or takes medication. Others are darkly satirical, and joke about looking for objects to self-harm with. A few are more harrowing, with users recounting stories of being forcibly restrained and drugged against their will in their wards.

Talking about mental health online will almost always produce polarising results. These videos can mean different things to different people – for example, a video where a user’s self-harm scars are visible might be triggering to one person, but might be seen as a valuable attempt to combat stigma surrounding self-harm to someone else. Yet unlike the time-worn portrayals of mental health facilities in popular media (think eerie prison vibes in Shutter Island or downright monstrous in Ratched) that only reinforce misconceptions about mental illness, these videos make us see things from the creators’ perspectives.

“Making funny videos about my experience at the psych ward is very cathartic – it releases a lot of frustration from my time inside,” says Maryland-based Ayza Diaz, a 19-year-old who was admitted to a psych ward after a bout of LSD-induced psychosis. For Diaz, her ironic videos – where carers take away journals or threaten to revoke day-room privileges – are less about exposing a warped medical system, and more about accepting her own journey by sharing it online.

Community is also a large part of psych ward TikTok. Comments like “this is on point” and “you’re hilarious” remind Diaz that she is not alone. In one instance, Giuiliana Pandolfi, a Boston-based mental health technician, even commented on her video. “I’m on the verge of quitting…the people I work with are ignorant and constantly talk shit about their patients,” she wrote. For Diaz, this was validating.

Pandolfi, who has borderline personality disorder herself, works at a psych ward and believes having this space on TikTok is helpful to create awareness and find a community. “When I was in high school, I didn’t have a place to share my feelings, and I wonder if that could have eased my journey,” she tells Dazed over a phone call.

Besides finding comfort in a shared community, members of psych ward TikTok are also motivated by a need to dispel murky tropes about mental illness and in-patient care. Before Olivia Ancell – a London-based beauty TikToker – was admitted to a psych ward, she had no idea what the inside of one looked like. “Earlier I was anxious about what to expect and wanted to share my experience so people know it’s not all bad, and maybe feel encouraged to seek the help they need,” Ancell says. She was admitted to a care facility in May this year for post-traumatic anxiety and since posting the video, she has recommended her facility to many who reached out. 

“I was anxious about what to expect and wanted to share my experience so people know it’s not all bad, and maybe feel encouraged to seek the help they need” – Olivia Ancell

Yet as always, sharing hyper-personal stories on social media can be a double-edged sword. Ancell’s health insurance covers treatment at a private psych ward, which is inaccessible to the majority of people. Ancell is aware of this, and has pinned a comment acknowledging that she is “lucky” and has depended on the NHS in the past, yet the most common retort she receives on the video is people shaming her privilege and blaming her for glamorising mental illness. At one point the anxiety from it got so bad that she limited comments on the post.

Of course, there also remains the worry of negative in-patient experiences scaring away viewers, especially when teenagers today take social media more seriously than ever. A recent Ofcom report found that, for the first time, Instagram was the most popular news source among teenagers, used by 29 per cent of them in 2022, while 28 per cent used TikTok and YouTube. These statistics are troubling because very often, misinformation and harmful content thrive on social media making it tricky as a space for education.

But it is unfair to place this responsibility on psych ward TikTok creators to educate others, when they’re primarily posting videos to share their personal reality. Ultimately, their experiences – be they negative, positive, or in-between – are valid, and they should be able to share their feelings online. The real issue is with the larger mental healthcare system, which is receiving criticism offline as well: Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, recently urged the government to fund six new mental health hospitals as thousands of patients in the UK are currently being treated in buildings that are dangerous and unfit for use.

Another common critique of this TikTok subgenre is that these memeified videos could normalise self-harm and encourage those who hurt themselves to keep going. But Anna Bailie, a PhD student at University of York researching mental health cultures on social media, believes censoring potentially harmful content online may not be the best way forward.

“Instagram began blurring pictures that show self-harm,” she says. “However, an interviewee told me she posted an everyday picture where her scars were visible and that image was taken down, which made her very existence feel censored,” she explains. Evidently, it’s complicated – while moderators might have preempted an Instagram user feeling triggered by the sight of self-harm scars, they failed to preempt how the user who posted the photo might feel to have her body censored. Bailie adds that social media apps need to work on more sustainable strategies to regulate content.

Could this online world that is a safe space, also double as a trigger for these creators? It is a shame that despite being in recovery themselves, these TikTokers feel the need to raise awareness of mental illness and deal with unfair censorship and negative comments on social media in the process. While this would be difficult for anyone, it is even more challenging when your mental health isn’t at its best.

Ultimately, the solution to this bind does not lie with TikTok users, but with health services. While in the short-term, psych ward videos can help people share their experiences, find a community and even destigmatize in-patient care – this will only get us so far. Only long-term, systemic change can lighten the negativity that looms over this digital community, through better, more affordable public healthcare, which works for everyone.