The hospital was medium sized at best, but it still buzzed with patients. Entering consciously, I sprinted past people. Lift. Third floor. Reception. The busy receptionist pointed in a vague direction where the crowd seemed to thin out.
I took a seat. I didn’t look up to scan the area. I didn’t want to. Every time I felt like someone walked by, I bowed my head so as to not be seen. This was not the place I wanted to run into an acquaintance. Or much worse, a friend!
Alternately, the more I focused on my thoughts, the more anguish I felt. What had pushed me so far over the edge that I found myself here today? What was it about my emotions that felt so ‘unsolvable’? I fought back tears. They stung my eyes.
A minute later, I was ushered into the therapist’s office.
There I was, all of 17 years old, crying uncontrollably in front of a licensed professional. She didn’t even have to utter a word. Just walking into her room somehow legitimised my anxiety. Then followed the outpour – I proceeded to feel angry and relieved all at once. Angry that, unlike my peers, I wasn’t out there preparing to face the world. Relieved that I was in here preparing to face myself.
Post what felt like an hour of being vulnerable and laying out all my skeletons, I had begun to shift from denying my anxiety to finding the courage to accept it.
But what if, on that day, I’d opted for an hour-long session with a verified influencer over a licensed professional? What if I had sounded off my struggles during a glorified virtual meet and greet rather than at a real therapy session? I ask, because these are very genuine situations that today’s internet generation is facing. I ask because this week, Santoshi Shetty, a fashion blogger, offered up her time on Instagram to her fans, claiming she was willing to lend an ear to their problems and hand out advice.
Sounds quite run of the mill? Like any other celebrity trying to earn relatability points by telling you they care? Like any other brand campaign rallying behind the social cause of the year? Well, this takes it a step further. Shetty offered the said “therapy” – even though she completely lacks the relevant certification – and “positive vibes” at a “minimal fee of Rs 1,500”.
The post where she offers her services has since been taken down and replaced with an apology after a backlash. In it, she claims it was all about forming a “community” in order to “grow spiritually” – a community that’s supposed to serve as an open forum, but one that is actually only meant to serve her brand.
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All this has come smack in the middle of multiple global crises that have affected each one of us adversely. Mental health facilities are required more urgently than ever. And while lots of us know better than to consult an unqualified Instagram phenomenon, I know that doesn’t stand true for all of us who have been rendered extremely vulnerable this year – especially many teens.
Unknowingly, teens make for the perfect bait – many among them more than willing to have an open dialogue about mental health and more than willing to take an influencer’s word for it. This could potentially warp their understanding of how to effectively cope with challenges they face. What rings true for a girl that deals in likes and reposts may not ring true for her entire audience that deals with reality.
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But what I find the most disingenuous is how transparently Shetty is commodifying her time and attention all while trying to package it as genuine concern for well-being.
Back then, if you told the teen version of myself that I could swap out a tough session of coming to terms with my mental health for a breezy virtual call with my favourite celebrity, chances are I’d choose the latter. Luckily, it was a time when social media had just begun to engulf our lives and besides YouTube videos, not much else was monetised.
But as I snap back to reality, where we sell our souls and buy green tea, both on Instagram, I can’t help but think – in a world reeling from an onslaught of past, present and forthcoming crises, are mental health influencers the new normal?
Kaavya Shah is a word lover. Word hater. Word writer. Otherwise known as the incredible sulk.
Featured image credit: Jennifer Hamra/Unsplash