Can you treat anxiety with YouTube videos?

With access to mental health treatment under increasing strain, experts weigh up the benefits of using the video platform to find relief from anxiety disorders.

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YouTube has become the go-to social platform for life hacks. There are several ways to download a video, and is one of the best websites and also tools for each of them. Hoards of chipper lifestyle vloggers upload new self-improvement videos every day, ranging from recipes for hot chocolate served in orange to the secrets to effective to-do list writing. But among the homemaking tips and makeup tutorials, a crop of these videos is tackling a more serious subject: mental health.

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A prominent figure like Zoe “Zoella” Sugg, who has a YouTube following of 10 million, is among the dozens of celebrity vloggers to have uploaded personal stories and tips for overcoming anxiety to the Google-owned video platform.

At a time when access to mental health treatment is under increasing strain and stigmas still abound, could YouTube videos about anxiety be a viable means of treatment for sufferers?
“Watching videos about people talking [about] their anxiety on YouTube is a net positive,” mental health advocate and anxiety sufferer Ashley Womble said. “It can make people feel less alone and encourage them to take action to deal with their mental health issue.”

Womble, who runs a mental health support website Psyched, said that one of the biggest benefits of these videos is removing the stigma of talking about living with mental health issues.

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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults. It’s an umbrella term for a number of mental health disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These are characterized by persistent and unrealistic worry about everyday things. Treatment typically involves talk therapy, such as psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, and more severe cases can be treated with medication.

Brian Primack, professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, also agrees that YouTube videos about anxiety are a big step towards talking about mental health. Primack, who specializes in the effect of social media on mental health, adds that the impact of these videos is strengthened when they’re made by prominent YouTube personalities with large fanbases.

“Instead of a stuffy doctor giving you jargon and terminology that’s complicated, the information is coming from a peer,” he said.
After the success of Sugg’s videos, the UK mental health charity Mind appointed her a digital ambassador in 2014 and worked in partnership with YouTube and Sugg to launch a social media campaign around anxiety and panic attacks. Recognizing the potential therapeutic and awareness benefits of these videos, the charity also hosts a YouTube series of its own, called #mentalhealthseries, in which it encourages viewers to upload a video of them sharing their personal stories.

The charity vets the videos before uploading them to its channel of over 6,000 subscribers and links to Mind resources for further information and support for viewers.

Eve Critchley, Mind’s head of digital, says social media can help anxiety suffers to feel less isolated. “Increasingly social media is giving young people a way of voicing their experiences,” Critchley said. “Mind actively encourages people to create their own ‘mental health selfish’ because sometimes the best mental health advice we get is not from professionals, but from people who’ve been through the same thing as us.”

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than half of US counties have no mental health professionals. For most Americans, therapy is limited to what their insurance covers, which often isn’t a whole lot and many patients report the process of finding a therapist through their plan a frustrating – and even discriminating – process.

The American Psychological Association estimates that 30% of therapists don’t take insurance at all, and in some states, like California, that figure is closer to 50%.
“In those situations where there really is no other information, I think there are a lot of benefits to getting it in other ways,” Primack said.

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However, Womble cautions that no matter how good the information might be, videos will never be a substitute for therapy.

“One of the things that are a little [disconcerting] is that many of these videos don’t suggest talking to a mental health professional or thinking about any types of therapy, even a support group,” she said.
Womble also stresses that for a true anxiety disorder, some form of professional therapy is a requirement. She points to online resources such as TalkSpace, InYourCorner, and Joyable as affordable and accessible remote treatment options for sufferers.

Womble adds that many of the videos on YouTube do not make a clear enough distinction between anxiety as a mental health disorder and anxious feelings that are normal for everyone. Referring to the videos that are tip-based, she says they are more like stress management techniques than something that addresses anxiety disorder.

“It’s fine to talk about your feelings of anxiety but that’s very different from having an anxiety disorder,” Womble said. “It could be a little off-putting for people with serious mental health issues to see people talking about chewing gum and drinking tea as ways of dealing with anxiety.”

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