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HomesingaporeTikTok trend of users posing as IMH doctors ‘worsens mental health stigma’,...

TikTok trend of users posing as IMH doctors ‘worsens mental health stigma’, but some social media users find it funny

SINGAPORE — At first it was somewhat humorous. Then more accounts and comments popped up, so Ms Cheryl Cheng began to feel uneasy about the negative impact it can have on mental health advocacy in Singapore. 

Dr Kuek himself had written a post on networking site LinkedIn after noticing this trend, noting that it can hinder people from getting the help and treatment they need for their mental health to avoid being mocked.

“It turns IMH and its doctors into the butt of the joke,” he told TODAY on Friday (Sept 15).

“If repeated more, people may feel that they should not seek help in fear of being seen as a joke.”

However, one advocate said that this social media trend can be turned into a good opportunity to speak up about mental health.

WHAT MENTAL HEALTH ADVOCATES SAY

Dr Kuek noticed this trend “some months back”, but there were only a few TikTok account holders commenting at first. Now, he sees a growing number of users making these comments. 

“It sends a subconscious message that IMH is associated with being made fun of. After all, why pose as IMH doctors? Why not other hospitals?” he asked.

“So by further using IMH’s name, it perpetuates the stigma that it is where the ‘weird and crazy’ people go to.”

Beyond that, it also diminishes the reputation of mental healthcare professionals, he added.

Ms Anthea Ong, a former Nominated Member of Parliament who founded mental health initiative SG Mental Health Matters, said that some people may not immediately identify these TikTok account holders as trolls.

They may not even know what trolls are.

She also said that that such users may perpetuate misinformation, intentionally or otherwise.

Beyond that, remarks about “missing appointments” can be a trigger for people with genuine mental health problems.

“One of the most challenging things to do for people with mental health struggles is to seek help,” Ms Ong said.

“It’s not just social stigma but also self-stigma. Sometimes missing medicine and missing appointments can worsen that self-stigma of feeling useless.”

On the other hand, among the advocates approached by TODAY, there are those such as Mr Asher Low, founder of non-profit Limitless, who said that this is a “generational trend” where young people use dark, self-depreciating humour as a coping mechanism for their own struggles.

“On one hand, we could look at this trend as normalising conversations around seeking help… and that we are comfortable joking about it as a generation,” he added.

“But there might also be some people who are using this to make fun of others and that is not healthy.”

IMH said: “Conversations on social media platforms can play a part in improving mental health awareness, but they should be done with sensitivity so as not to further stigmatise mental health issues.”

The psychiatric hospital urged members of the public to not respond to these account holders and to visit IMH’s website and official social media accounts for more information.

So what can be done? Social media platforms ought to step up to regulate such content, the mental health advocates said.

Dr Kuek has reported such accounts for impersonation. However, he has received a long list of rejection messages from TikTok in screenshots seen by TODAY. In them, TikTok states that these accounts “do not violate our community guidelines”.

The advocates also said that this shows the need for more mental health advocacy and digital literacy so that young people know how to navigate such content and better discern what might be considered humorous and what might be offensive.

However, noting that not much could be done to stop a social media trend until it dies down, Mr Low from Limitless said that it could be a good opportunity for IMH and other mental health organisations to grow their presence on TikTok.

“On a more positive note, it opens the doors for these conversations. Like, hey, this is what happens when you really have an appointment at IMH,” he suggested.

WHAT YOUNG SOCIAL MEDIA USERS SAY

Among the youth who spoke to TODAY, some said that they found the exchanges funny, while others said that these trolls have driven the trend into questionable and somewhat offensive territory.

For 23-year-old Sheryln Tan, they can be a joke “if done in good taste”.

This depends on where the comments are made. If they were on the account of a public figure who “has a funny personality and are intentionally funny”, the university student said that she can take it as a joke.

Ms Cheng who had concerns about these said: “Impersonation can be funny in the right context. Like, say, a child does something cute when breaking a rule, and someone pretending to be a discipline master comments.”

Although there were mixed views about Ms Cheng’s TikTok post about the stigma that this trend perpetuates, she said that it was to be expected.

“There’s a sense of anonymity online, so these users feel protected from the consequences of their actions.”

Ms Christel Goh, 32, founder of public relations agency Grow Public Relations, said that with the engagement and “likes” that these comments receive, she noticed that they would often pop up as the first few comments in some TikTok videos.

“I just never thought to report, I just ignore it,” she added.

What caused this trend to grow? Herd mentality and the viral nature of these TikTok videos, some of the young people said.

Likening it to social media users trotting out terms such as “girlypop” and “zesty” when men are effeminate, marketing executive Desmond Lim, 26, said that it has offensive undertones.

“The act of commenting may not cause more harm, but it can perpetuate certain stereotypes and normalise certain behaviours,” he added.

“So it’s like ‘new month, new flavour’ for social media users. Last month, we used certain terms to insult people who are gay, now we insult those who are mentally ill.”

While he admitted that dark humour can be funny, too many people jumping onto the bandwagon can make it “cringe” or unbearable.

Just like other trends, this will die off, he said matter-of-factly.

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