Getting Started: Social Media and Individual Practice

Friday, September 22 2023

In 2019, The New York Times boldly proclaimed that “Instagram therapists are the new Instagram poets.”

In years past, poetry took social media by storm, with writers sharing their craft for free and sometimes gaining millions of followers just by sharing the right poem at the right time. Now, more and more therapists have been logging online — offering therapeutic advice to the ethers of the Internet in a similar way. And sometimes gaining hundreds of thousands of followers, too.

Yet the reality is that posting online about therapeutic approaches and modalities is often seen as an ethical gray area. So much so, last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a whitepaper stating, “In the absence of social media guidelines or standards specific to the profession, regulatory boards have relied primarily upon the ethical codes promulgated by the profession for determining how to judge the appropriateness of its uses.”

Even though there are no formal guidelines developed yet, it’s clear that social media isn't going anywhere. And, there is a growing need to understand how to use these different platforms ethically — both to share expertise with an engaged audience and to build your individual practice.

In this article, we’ll highlight some of the top considerations for getting started on social media, plus some insights from Alison Sheesley, PhD, LPC, a SonderMind provider who gained nearly 30,000 TikTok followers after her first video on play therapy went viral.

Understand the digital landscape

More than 80% of Americans get news from digital devices. So, it’s no surprise that having an online presence creates an unparalleled opportunity for getting out information about your specialized approach to therapy or your individual practice.

Think about it from a client perspective, too. The journey that a new client is about to embark on when considering therapy is one of the most personal and vulnerable experiences they may ever face. Being able to see how a therapist speaks or the opportunity to gauge their approachability is important. And, taking to social media as a practitioner to start or contribute to conversations about mental health can significantly impact the collective work to break the stigma around mental health conditions.

Dr. Sheesley, a play therapist based in Denver, planned to return to individual practice in 2020 after spending several years working at The Colorado Lab, where she focused on research around foster care educational outcomes and child support policy. But as we know all too well now, 2020 would prove to be a challenging year for a lot of things. Amid a global pandemic, lockdowns and quarantines, and a pregnancy, Dr. Sheesley started using TikTok to talk about play therapy. 

“I literally thought of TikTok as my client,” Dr. Sheesley explained.

Once her posts started gaining thousands of likes and going viral, she recognized how much of a need there was for her specialized expertise online. She began to plan “play therapy 101” — one-minute videos that could help equip parents with the basics. Dr. Sheesley shared that even though a one-minute video may seem like a short amount of time, each post took a lot of planning.

Before your online debut, take a peek at some other therapists’ social media profiles to see what types of posts are being shared. You can start by searching for popular hashtags like #therapy and #therapistsofinstagram or by looking at industry leaders and the content featured on their profiles, like the American Psychological Association, Mayo Clinic, or The Trevor Project.

Answer these questions

You’re likely already using social media for your personal life (a growing majority of US adults are), but developing a social media account associated with your individual practice or professional expertise will have some key differences. Consider these logistics:

What platform do you want to be on? 

Pew Research found that YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter, WhatsApp, TikTok, and Reddit are the top ten platforms most used by US adults — in that order. Decide what platform or platforms make the most sense for the people you want to reach and the types of posts you want to make. 

What do you want to share? And why?

Do you want to share snippets of practical advice? Define complicated terms? Respond to pop culture and news? Your social media presence is similar to how you present yourself to clients during a session, or even how you furnish your office. 

Dr. Sheesley likes to think of her posts as public service — she is teaching the basics, for free, to help make mental health care more accessible. Her suggestion for a therapist just starting out is simple: “Give people real tips, be practical. People just want to have information that’s valuable and useful.”

How much time can you commit to your social media presence?

Building a social media presence is a lot more than just posting. It’s also important to prepare for critical feedback and follow other therapists who may enlighten you or your practice.

“It is a huge emotional investment,” Dr. Sheesley said. “You are offering yourself to people.”

To help manage this emotional investment, determine what type of expertise you want to share and map out a few posts. Then, realistically ask yourself how many hours per week you can dedicate to engaging online and developing your content. 

What types of boundaries will you establish?

Direct messages and comments are inevitable. Know what your boundaries will be by taking time to think through the following questions:

  • Will you allow private messaging to be turned on?
  • Will you add a disclaimer to your bio?
  • Will you list your real name and credentials in your profile or use an alias? 
  • Will you set “working hours”?

Learn from the community

Dr. Sheesley said that one of the highlights of starting her TikTok account was the opportunity to connect with several other play therapists through the platform, leading to real-life professional development. For example, she met the Black Play Therapy Society founder, Althea T. Simpson, MBA, LCSW, and is now attending a workshop with the organization later this summer. 

“I don’t know if I would’ve been aware of her unless it were for TikTok,” Dr. Sheesley said. 

She also shared that before the pandemic, she was planning on joining a group practice. But because of the response to her social media posts, she felt empowered to go into individual practice independently.

“As a counselor, following other counselors, I have elevated my own practice enormously.”

Remember that getting started on social media isn’t just about what you can offer, but about what you can receive, too. Learning from the community could enrich your own education, build confidence, and strengthen your own professional development. 

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