Getting Mental Health Advice From a TikTok Doc
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the pandemic is stretching the boundaries of mental health care.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The walls. Were the walls always as close as they seem now? It’s spring and a person’s fancies, mid-COVID-19 quarantine, might well turn to both the strange and even stranger.
Then, courtesy of a cursory glance across the interwebs, you discover the dulcet tones of a talking head with eyes that bore into your soul. Could be the complete isolation, but you listen. Then you relax. Six seconds later you realize you’ve been TikTok’d into knowing exactly what to say to the boundary-steppers in your life.
You have been Kreft’d.
“There are lots of healing tools out there.” Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Janine Kreft is sheltered in place in Austin, Texas. Her voice over the phone, though, betrays not even a small hint of humor about the place in space where we presently find ourselves. And clearly her day job keeping vets even-keeled through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ TeleMental Health offering means that there’s nothing even a little amusing in her mind about video-chatting your way to more positive emotional outcomes.
“But when people have all of what they typically use to distract themselves taken away?” Kreft queries. Then, a full stop, followed by a measured pause.
“What are they going to use to navigate their emotions and what’s going on inside their heads?”
These are the questions that have preoccupied the now-37-year-old Kreft whose first and most earnestly held previous profession was ballet dancer, and who cut her teeth at the Boston Conservatory before performing and then hitting a wall of physical limitations and subsequent injuries. Followed by the inevitable mental ones growing out of the fact that there are very few old ballet dancers still dancing ballet.
What are [people] going to use to navigate their emotions and what’s going on inside their heads?
So in a tactical retreat to the tune of doctor-heal-thyself, Kreft’s struggle to craft a new identity separate from dance took her not only to getting a degree from the American School of Professional Psychology in Southern California but also to helping vets make the transition from their military lives back to their civilian ones. Which means heavy on the treatment of PTSD, depression, insomnia, anger and anxiety spectrum disorders. And probably pretty light on jokes.
Through encrypted lines and secure applications — sorry, Zoom — Kreft found therapeutical solutions forthcoming from the VA’s preexisting telehealth program. That is, just as effective, and in some ways more so than face-to-face work. “On video chats I can gather a good deal about patients’ home lives,” says Kreft, who technically started working from home as far back as 2017. “And their relationships to those lives.”
Her notion is partially confirmed when professional peers consider tele-therapy. “I normally see patients in person,” says Rebecca Fain, who is almost five years into a Georgia-based practice that focuses on trauma and personality disorders in 18-to-30-year-olds. “Telehealth is super weird and hard. I feel like I’m getting in a groove, but it’s just new and weird on top of the anxiety of my patients.”
Kreft, meanwhile, decided in these trying times to try something a little … different. For her at least.
“TikTok has been my new jam since January,” says Kreft about extending her brand of what she calls “energy psychology” from where she started her side hustle on Instagram back in 2017 to now. Though it’s not technically “therapy,” and ethically she can’t give advice directly to strangers, her TikTok tutelage lets her, in troubled times like now, disseminate tools to a community of mostly high school and college-age kids — at last check more than 260,000 followers and over 4.4 million likes — hungry for them.
“I advise what I think is part of any good practice in navigating your inner landscape,” Kreft says. “Waking up and meditating, breath work, tapping, getting out in nature, mindfulness, setting boundaries.”
All in the name of processing trapped emotions. Something Kreft is looking forward to expanding into what she calls Access Bars, which sounds damned near mystical as she explains it, trading on the electromagnetic component of how our heads work. By? What for all the world sounds like acupressure or some version of a head massage.
“Call me old-fashioned,” says retired counselor Irma Norman, “but the practice when really applied most effectively seems to be about, very simply, talking to people while sitting across from them. Anything else feels like too much to me.”
Which may be how COVID-19 has changed the landscape for a lot more than epidemiology. From TikTok-fueled therapeutic strategies to apps like Woebot that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to make mirth out of misery for afflicted parties, how people get the help they need is changing.
So while Kreft’s work locale remains her home, the valence of the problems she’s handling has ratcheted up, which, while good for business, has to be hell on Kreft’s head. Right?
“Not really,” says Kreft, who also envisions an eventual move into books. “I try to follow the advice I give — don’t judge yourself, embrace your emotions — because we’re still going to be humans for better or worse. And I hope better.”