January 25, 2022

TikTok: The Next Leader in Behavioral Health?

Hand holding phone showing TikTok

One thing we’ve heard consistently is the emotional toll that the pandemic has had on younger generations. Their school and social interactions have been disrupted. They’ve been living with anxiety and uncertainty, reinforced by their parents and social media feeds.

The latter was no surprise to anyone who’s scrolled at the cost of their own mental health, and it’s been backed up by research and by the platforms themselves. We weren’t surprised when Facebook was accused of covering up its own study findings that Instagram was driving negative perceptions of body image and, especially for teen girls, suicidal thoughts. Similarly, TikTok has come under fire for dangerous “challenges” that have been blamed for severe injuries and even deaths.

But every technology is simply an extension of our human capabilities, as Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s. Television, computers, the internet, social media: they’re not good or bad, it’s what we do with them that can be. In one classic example, a late-blooming seminary student from Pittsburgh launched programming he hoped would challenge the pablum that permeated children’s television in the late 1960s – and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for more than 890 episodes while ushering in a Golden Age of children’s television and making Fred Rogers a hero to generations. And so, it’s no surprise to see that the medium of TikTok has a good side as well. Patients, physicians, nurses, and counselors have embraced the platform in support of behavioral health.

HCPs Get on Board
Many patients are sharing their mental health stories on TikTok, with correct – or, sometimes, incorrect – guidance for other patients. Fortunately, these patient videos aren’t alone on TikTok– increasingly, they’re complimented by healthcare professionals (HCPs) offering expert information about behavioral health in patient-friendly language.

VeryWellMind recently curated 13 of these top HCP creators. For instance, the most popular example they list, Canadian therapist Nadia Addesi, has 3 million followers for her frequent videos discussing anxiety, depression, trauma, and other common behavioral health issues.  

One particularly helpful facet of these creators’ presence on a social media platform is visibility. Patients can identify therapists who might be particularly suited to help them – which may be a new experience for many. For instance, Dr. Antoinette, a Florida-based therapist, has shared profiles of a wide variety of other Black therapists like her. (While the mental-health field is becoming increasingly diverse, the APA notes that it’s still under-representative: while 62% of the U.S. population is white, 86% of psychologists in the U.S. are.)

Brands Can Too
It may help to understand this growth in social counseling as an HCP phenomenon, rather than a TikTok phenomenon. These professionals may be using TikTok as their platform of choice, but what they’re doing is simple: seeing a public interest, hunger, or need for easily accessible behavioral-health advice. Many patients cannot afford care; they are not sure what they need; they may not even be sure they need help. But they’re interested, and they’re seeking accurate information.

It might seem novel for most pharma brand marketers, but you shouldn’t overlook TikTok influencers when you’re considering partnerships with opinion leaders. In fact, given TikTok’s current user statistics, perhaps you should be biased toward them. Currently, the platform has more active users than Twitter, Reddit, or Snapchat – 22% of active social-media users worldwide, and 31% of those in America, use TikTok regularly – and it has the highest engagement of any social-media platform, with an average session length of 10.85 minutes, according to research compiled by SEO website Backlinko. Users skew young, of course, but perhaps not as young as you may think: among active U.S. users, 25% are age 10-19; 22.4% are 20-29; 21.7% are 30-39; 20.3% are 40-49; and 11% are 50+.

It might seem novel for most pharma brand marketers, but you shouldn’t overlook TikTok influencers when you’re considering partnerships with opinion leaders.

“This unique amalgamation of memes, entertainment, education, plus an algorithm that doesn’t favor creators who make TikTok their full-time job has created the ideal foundation for pharma to build on,” said Intouch EVP of Media & Innovation Justin Chase.

CNS brands, in particular, may want to take special note of what’s happening on TikTok today and in the future. From ADHD to anxiety, depression to migraine, insomnia to addiction – a wide variety of brands could be addressing (or, for starters, just listening to) a wide audience of people seeking knowledge about mental and emotional health.

The TikTok of Tomorrow
It’s positive to see accurate, empowering mental-health information become increasingly available to people who need it. An even more hopeful sight, however, (and a terrific brand-building move) would be if TikTok parlayed this early uptake into a behavioral health service. Many acquisition targets could fit into such a strategy, from Calm to Woebot, pivoting TikTok from video host focused on marketing revenues to something much greater. Is it possible? Hey, if CVS could give up cigarette revenues en route to future domination of primary healthcare, couldn’t TikTok trade the skull-breaker challenge for leadership in behavioral health? We believe TikTok’s survival may depend on that pivot. Tech platforms will come under increasing pressure from investors, if not Washington, to stage their second acts in more sustainable categories.

Healthcare brands that engaged early would come along for the ride, positioning themselves to take a leading voice on TikTok for years to come … and create powerful connections with the HCPs and consumers pioneering behavioral health in the future.

Authors: Jeff Greene, VP, Strategic Planning; Sarah Morgan, Writer & Consultant.