Trauma monetization: it’s become a buzzword in the age of social media. But what does it mean and what are the dangers of it?
TikTok influencer Kimberly Rhoades has 2.6 million followers on TikTok. Her tagline on her TikTok and her Instagram accounts is, “Your favorite trauma dumping comedian.” Her content is all about child abuse and alcohol addiction, where she playacts her parents: Cigarette Mom and Beer Dad. In one skit (warning, Rhoades swears a lot so you may not want to watch it if you have little ones around), the school principal asks Cigarette Mom if she’s been helping “Kimmi” at home with her math homework, to which she replies, “I thought that was the reason that we pay taxes—to have teachers so I don’t got to teach her at home.”
Trauma monetization and social media
Social media has put us in the public eye, and depending on what we choose to share or disclose, it has allowed others to become privy to our hopes, pains and sometimes our traumas. And if you can gain enough followers and engagement, social media platforms will pay you for your content. Since humans seem to have a fascination with drama and pain, this means if you are willing to get online and disclose all of your pain, you could make a fairly decent living off of it.
The roots of trauma monetization
This didn’t start with social media. In 1994, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir Prozac Nation completely changed the game of the autobiography. She spoke frankly, casually and vividly about her struggle with mental illness. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, writer and poet Meghan O’Rourke made the point that, “Without Prozac Nation as a model before them, so many writers—me among them—might not have gone on to write memoirs about periods of difficulty.”
The potential danger of trauma coaching
The willingness to bare the soul and turn it into a career has a dual effect of both destigmatizing mental illness and even making it hip to an extent. The hashtag “trauma” has 2.3 million posts on TikTok. There has also been a boom of trauma and mental illness coaches sharing information about what trauma looks like and offering advice on coping. Many of these coaches have lived experiences with trauma they are willing to share.
It should be said that most of these coaches are not therapists. Dr. Frank Anderson is a psychiatrist and trauma specialist who also has experienced personal trauma that he recounts in his upcoming memoir, To Be Loved: A Story of Truth, Trauma, and Transformation, in which he discusses his experience of coming out as gay after growing up with an Italian-American family that sent him to conversion therapy. Anderson is concerned about the quality of information that is widely circulated through social media around trauma and trauma recovery. Though he’s glad to see more people interested in helping through sharing their personal stories and experiences, he wishes they would disclose their lack of formal training in psychiatry or counseling.
“Just because you have followers does not mean you’re an expert in this field,” Anderson says. “Now our value and commodity in our society is how many followers you have, not how much knowledge you have.”
Dr. DeAnna Crosby has a doctorate in psychology and is the clinical director of New Method Wellness, a San Juan Capistrano-based treatment center. She reinforces that people who are not licensed professionals working with trauma survivors can be dangerous.
“One of the biggest no-nos in psychology is doing trauma therapy without a license,” Crosby warns. “Nobody should do trauma therapy unless [they] have a master’s degree.”
Crosby is concerned that many of these coaches open up people’s trauma by talking about it with them and then sending them out into the world, potentially without any aftercare.
The dangers of trauma dumping
Eliza VanCort is an author, consultant and keynote speaker. When she was a child, VanCort’s mother—who experienced mental illness that came on after VanCort’s birth—kidnapped VanCort three times. VanCort has also experienced her own “me too moment” and a traumatic brain injury—all of which she addresses in her speeches.
VanCort didn’t always include her history in her speaking engagements; she only started getting personal after her daughter pointed out that she was “telling everyone else to be brave, without being brave [herself].”
“I wasn’t really providing people with the two things you need to provide in a speech, which is information and inspiration,” VanCort says. “I was just giving information, and that often isn’t enough.”
After VanCort began incorporating her personal story, she found that her speeches grabbed her audiences more and kept their attention. But she is frank about the fact that if she had not already processed her own trauma, it wouldn’t work.
“I was in really intense therapy for a very, very long time,” she says. “I think because of that, I was able to step into these situations where I’m being interviewed and asked to talk about my trauma, or giving speeches and asked to talk about my trauma. I talk about my trauma in my book. I was able to do all of these things really well because I was prepared emotionally and had worked through so much.”
Find support before sharing
This isn’t true for everyone in the trauma game. Anderson points out that sharing trauma can be beneficial—if it can help other people. He’s concerned when he sees people “trauma dumping,” or talking in depth about trauma, without warning their audience.
“I see people crying on TikTok looking for support. That is not a way to get support. I can’t stress that enough,” Anderson says. “It can be totally overwhelming and you can become more symptomatic if you’re sharing something that hasn’t been healed yet.”
He adds that you might not get the response you expect from your audience, which can be painful if you haven’t come to terms with what happened to you. Although many people are supportive when others disclose, there is something about the anonymity of the internet that also brings out the meanest side of individuals. Because of this, Anderson says you should always ask yourself why you’re sharing the information.
“What is the purpose of the sharing? If it’s for education and awareness, it’s one thing,” he notes. “If it’s for [your] need to get love and support, go somewhere else.”