My first therapist was a woman named Alison who looked vaguely like my father’s sister, also named Alison. I felt this was a good sign. I’d contacted Alison in search of a couples’ therapist, but my boyfriend didn’t come with me—he was very busy having a breakdown of his own and sleeping with another woman. In fact, I came to these revelations in Alison’s office, a room I came to think of as sacred. In that room, it was only ever me and Alison–I was, in those 45 minutes, the only thing that mattered to her. She once called me after a particularly rough session. I was crying in the bathtub. She just wanted to check on me, she said gently. She knew today had been hard. She wanted me to know I would be okay.

I was okay, thanks in large part to Alison. Strangely, I can remember almost nothing she told me over the course of our sessions, perhaps because she really said very little. I talked, mostly, or cried, and she sat there and nodded. She held space. At first this made me crazy–FIX ME, I kept asking her, and she’d smile sympathetically and nod and wait, and in the silence she made, I would rush in with something I would never have said otherwise, some strange revelation that had been lurking in the shadowy sea of my unconscious. Then she’d smile again, and nod, and on we’d go.

I’ve been thinking of Alison a lot lately, namely in relation to a recent Times piece about the rise of Instagram Therapists. The Insta-Therapists (a term that at least one of the therapists in the article has publicly disavowed) have joined a growing cohort of influencers and wellness advocates using social media to discuss mental health. They’re capitalizing on the “therapy generation,” a population segment that neatly overlaps with the social media generation, transforming seemingly superficial mediums like Instagram into a therapeutic tool for emotional growth, taking what has traditionally been reserved for those private, sacred therapy rooms into a very public sphere—for free.

“This Shouldn’t Be Privileged Information”

Andrea Glik is a New York-based psychotherapist who started her public Instagram account, @somaticwitch, after realizing that she had access to resources that shouldn’t be proprietary to only those who could afford therapy.

“I had shared some charts about recognizing domestic violence on my private Instagram and got a few messages about how helpful they were,” she told me. “That was when I realized this shouldn’t be privileged information. This is really vital stuff about our lives and our bodies.”

The more Andrea posted, the more feedback she received. “I’ve connected with so many people who can’t afford therapy, but my posts have been jumping off places for them to begin to process or understand themselves,” she says. “I also post a lot about sexuality and queerness, and people will message me to say they didn’t realize they could talk to therapists about this, or they thought they were the only person who felt this way. So much of what I do on Instagram is just normalize people’s experiences.”

Her account has joined others such as the popular @notesfromyourtherapist and @askdrjess (who you may recognize from a recent Man Repeller event) in offering mental health and self-care advice and resources through everything from thoughtfully-filtered selfies to complex diagrams about how our neurological system responds to trauma. It’s a radical shift for a medium that was created as a way for friends to share pictures of their last good meal. Many of these (now) influencers have, in fact, built their entire following by promising to speak candidly about their own mental wellness, capitalizing on the premise of “realness”—or as real as any filtered feed can be.

Chef and wellness advocate Sophia Roe is one such figure, and she is hyper-aware of how her own brand has been affected by her willingness to engage in real talk about “food and feelings.”

After a health scare, she wanted to expand her work as a personal chef to include food that could belong in the “world of wellness.” As her willingness to be open about issues like relationships, sex and intimacy, and personal trauma grew, so did her following. Her posts now range from sponsored videos about green bean salads to candid narrative posts about growing up in foster care. She is beautiful; her food is beautiful; still, it’s her honesty about her own relationship struggles and mental health that are the most compelling.

“The idea that we are all perfect–fine, if that’s what you want your platform to be, just a place of positivity, that’s fire, that’s amazing,” she says. “I want my platform to be a place of reality.”

Reality: It’s a complicated word, even more so in the context of a medium that encourages you to filter your life through the lens of hyper-reality, everything more colorful, the ugly stuff just out of frame. Therapy, on the other hand, is all about the ugly: dredging it up, examining it, and allowing it space to be. How, then, to reconcile the two?

For Andrea, it’s about acknowledging that for some people, her posts might be the closest they can get to traditional therapy. In that way, she hopes Instagram can be a gateway to a more nuanced relationship with self. “My posts should help people feel less alone; it should make them feel like they can talk about themselves more openly, and they can be honest about parts of their lives that have been hidden for a long time.”

Sophia agrees. “I’m just doing what I can to create an honest conversation around trauma and healing,” she says. “Listen, healing is ugly. When the fuck have you ever seen a scab that was beautiful to look at? I don’t have the rosiest, posiest Instagram all the time. The only way I can possibly feel good about myself at night is if I share my journey. My life story is very ugly, it’s not pretty. But does that mean I don’t deserve to be well? No, that’s crazy.”

Ultimately, there’s a generosity of spirit in this work, providing free resources and sharing personal trauma as a way of universalizing and de-stigmatizing mental health care. And in some ways, social media might make these conversations easier–there’s a perceived, comfortable intimacy to a medium where you can present your best self while still hiding behind a screen.

“I’m Not Trying to Sell Wellness to Anybody”

While other doctors and influencers on Instagram push sketchy supplements or pricey coaching sessions, none of the women I spoke to claim to be motivated by financial gain. Andrea has a full roster of clients; Sophia is a firm believer that wellness shouldn’t be a business.

“I’m not trying to sell wellness to anybody,” Sophia tells me. “There are people who argue that wellness is buying things. I think it is just the opposite. Buying a $28 smoothie is not self-care. I really want wellness to start feeling real. Wellness before products and tinctures. It’s self-talk. It’s forgiveness, it’s grace, it’s understanding. All this other bullshit is just bullshit. I’m trying to help people create a guidebook to find what wellness and self-care looks like for them.”

Still, when you see a medical professional posing in a bikini and promising her branded supplements can cure Lyme disease, it’s impossible not to wonder if the Instagram wellness game has created more problems than it could possibly solve. And while any trained therapist worth their salt is explicit about the line between in-person therapy and Instagram posts, there are undoubtedly those hoping their trauma can be waved away by a series of inspirational quotes. Meanwhile, I’ve seen no fewer than seven therapists since moving away from Alison, and I still feel like a beginner.

But until the stigma around mental health disappears, and therapy becomes more accessible to those in rural areas or without robust health insurance, Instagram might be the best we can do. Says Andrea: “For people who can’t afford traditional therapy, I want to believe that Instagram will be better than nothing.”

Graphic by Madeline Montoya.

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