Young women are using TikTok as a form of 'art therapy' to discuss addiction, family trauma, and abuse
- Teenagers and young adults — young women, in particular — are increasingly using
TikTokas an avenue to discuss family trauma, mental health, and healing.
- Many seem to embrace the transparency, dark humor, and creativity that the platform allows for sharing memories from their pasts.
- Some say that putting their stories online allows them to connect with people experiencing and healing from similar trauma.
- Psychotherapist Amy Morin says these kinds of videos allow people to take control of their own stories in an empowering way.
- Content warning: this story contains references to abuse, self-harm, suicide, and addiction.
18-year-old Milly was placed in foster care at just two months old. Three months later, she was adopted by the loving
In March, the 18-year-old posted a TikTok video explaining the situation.
As Ashe's "Moral of the Story" (a popular sound on TikTok) plays in the background, photos of Milly's biological parents and siblings flash across the screen.
"Being the middle child of both families and the only one put up for adoption," she writes in the final frame, as tears run down her face and she lip-syncs the lyric "Some mistakes get made, that's alright, that's okay."
"I know I joke about it a lot but deep down it hurts," she captioned the clip.
Milly told Insider that she originally posted the video intending to reach her family and friends. She hoped her TikTok could address the more painful side of a subject that she — and teenagers in general, she says — tend to joke about.
"I thought this might be a way to help them understand that I'm sensitive about this topic," she explained.
Another motivation for the video, she says, was that she wanted to be an example to other teenagers struggling with family trauma. While she didn't expect the video to garner viral attention, she thought it might reach someone experiencing a similar situation.
"I thought 'Maybe, if I post this, it will help others going through a super hard time,'" she said.
The video quickly went viral, racking up nearly 3 million views — and largely positive comments from fellow adoptees and teenagers working through issues at home. Milly says she quickly discovered the power of the platform and her own voice.
"I want people to know that they don't have to be alone during hard situations and hard times in their lives. There's always someone out there who understands and can back you up," she said.
Milly's adoptive father said he approves of her approach to tackling sensitive subjects. "I was proud of her for posting it. I thought that it's a good way for her to process her feelings," he told Insider. "I knew it was definitely something she struggled with — and we do talk about it, but it's tough to get inside her mind and say the right words. But for her to express it the way she did, I thought it was great."
While he admits that seeing his teenager post personal stories online can be "a little scary," he encourages her to strike a balance of being transparent while also being safe online. Milly's story, while deeply personal, leaves out her last name, the names of the biological family members involved, and any mention of location.
Milly says that she took to TikTok because it has unique features that allow for therapeutic storytelling.
"I one hundred percent believe that TikTok is one of the best apps to get your emotions out," she said. "There are so many people on TikTok, and you're bound to find people who feel the way you do. You can find your supporters."
Milly isn't the only TikTok user sharing a traumatic family history on the platform.
Young women have embraced almost every genre of TikTok video as a straightforward way to tell their complex (and oftentimes, painful) histories. Some recount memories of abuse and abandonment while dancing to popular audio, some incorporate song lyrics to add dark humor to stories of loss, others post "story time" videos in which they recap unusual and traumatic events.
Stories of trauma and family dysfunction seem to appeal to a wide audience. The #trauma hashtag has generated 350 million views on the platform, while the #abuse hashtag has generated 194 million views.
21-year-old Joyce has embraced the platform as an avenue to share her story of survival.
In May, Joyce uploaded a video detailing her history: growing up in an abusive home, facing mental health struggles and barriers to care, surviving suicide attempts and self-harm, battling addiction, and experiencing a sexual assault in college.
The video was one of many in which she addresses the realities of mental illness, the failures of the healthcare system, and the power of resilience.
In one month, the video has been viewed over 165,000 times and inspired a wave of both supportive and grateful comments.
"Not everyone has the guts to post stuff like this!" one commenter wrote. "You got this!! Keep pushing."
"Thank you for sharing your incredible story!!!" another wrote. "WE DO RECOVER!"
Joyce told Insider that she began posting on TikTok as a way to connect with people facing similar challenges and to provide comfort for those who might be "feeling alone." Seeing the impact her videos had online, she says, encouraged her to continue creating content.
"Doing this gives me a purpose," she told Insider. "I never had a hero growing up, so I like knowing I could be a hero for someone else."
Like many TikTok users, Joyce incorporates dark humor into videos, most of which shed light on her ongoing struggles and celebrate recovery milestones.
I was the girl choking on her own vomit in the bathroom at outpatient bc I couldn’t stay clean for even one day. Now I’m 205days. Never give up!♬ original sound - joefloww_
Developing connections with her online audience, she says, also provides her with motivation to fight her current battles (her recent videos detail her time in recovery from an eating disorder).
"Sometimes when I'm in a dark place, reading those comments helps me keep going," she explained.
Having an audience that looks to you for guidance and inspiration, Joyce says, comes with certain pressures. But over time, she's learned to take pride in that responsibility.
"At first, it was a little bit overwhelming because there were so many people saying I inspired them and I felt like in needed to constantly keep up with [posting]," she said. "But now I just feel proud and excited about it."
Seeing videos of young women sharing their painful family histories inspired Kiara to share her own story.
20-year-old Kiara says she grew up at the hands of an abusive parent and wanted an outlet to share her story in a place where she wouldn't be judged. After seeing several TikTok videos detailing experiences similar to her own, she posted a video.
"I figured that people would understand and be like, 'Hey, you're not alone. I've been through the same thing too,'" she said.
In the video, as a popular audio clip plays in the background, Kiara imitates her younger brother distracting her to keep her from crying when law enforcement would come to her house as a child.
"The police would honestly never listen to us, especially if we were crying," she told Insider. "They wouldn't listen to me specifically, because they always would say, 'you're just emotional, you're 13.'"
The dark humor in the video, Kiara says, is not only a way to process pain, but also a common way to get more eyes on your content.
"Dark humor is always a thing on TikTok, where people entertain their audiences to cover up a terrible situation. I've seen it with a lot of well-known TikTokkers too," she said. "It's just a way that people tend to cope with it and feel like they can get a message around by using a popular sound."
Ultimately, she says, the video represents a place of healing.
"It's taken a lot of time and a lot of healing to come to terms with things that have happened to me and to realize, 'Hey, you're not the one that did something wrong. You were a kid,'" she said. "There was a lot of work that had to be done to even talk about it. Honestly, I never talked about it with people [before now]."
Seeing similar TikToks also inspired Rose, a 19-year-old college student in New York, to embrace her dark sense of humor and share the painful details of her past.
When she went off to college, Rose noticed that most of her friends came from nuclear families, so, at first, she shied away from talking about her background. At 12 years old, she lost her brother. Her mother, she says, struggled with mental illness and, eventually, addiction. At 13 years old, Rose was placed in foster care and lived with relatives.
"I never really liked being the disenfranchised kid or, you know, the 'damaged goods' type of kid. So I actually didn't really talk about it," she told Insider.
But with her closest friends, she said, she always made jokes about her past because it was an an easier avenue into discussing a difficult topic.
After seeing several TikTok videos on her 'For You Page' from people who grew up with similar struggles — and getting suggestions from her childhood friends — she decided to make her jokes into videos.
"It just seemed like these videos [on the For You Page] were meant for me. I was like, 'Oh, um, this is very odd that TikTok somehow knows my entire life,'" she said. "And so I made my own. I think people found them funny."
Sharing personal trauma and being vulnerable, she says, can be nerve-wracking at first. But comments from viewers who can relate to her videos often boost her confidence and desire to continue posting.
Naturally, there are other concerns with posting personal content about family online.
"I would say my anxiety probably grows a little bit over the fact that my mother could one day find my account," she admitted. "But the awkwardness [of posting personal content] has gone away because I think my followers know what type of stuff I post and the people that follow me appreciate that type of humor."
Some of her younger family members, she says, have seen her videos.
"Some of my cousins who are in their twenties and thirties have sent them to me just to tell me how proud they are me because they know about my life," she said. "They're all really happy for me."
Like many others who post about their family trauma, Rose hopes her videos allow her viewers to feel less alone.
"I felt very alone as a child. And I thought I was the only person going through this," she said. "I hope no one else has to feel that way."
Rose says she's unlikely to run out of content for her expectant viewers.
"The second something pops in my head, I write it down on my notes," she explained. "I have a massive pile with probably like over a hundred TikTok ideas."
These TikTok videos serve a larger purpose than entertainment and community.
Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and professor of psychology at Northeastern University, says many of the TikTok videos detailing past traumas are an "impressive" example of women working through pain in a productive and creative way.
"I guess what struck me is that they are using some interesting components and it's almost a form of, say, art therapy," she told Insider. "They're able to use music and they're able to use dance — things were choreographed or things were put into motion and they tackled some abstract ideas — all while sharing very personal information that's traumatic."
These videos, she believes, can be a productive and healing way for people to shape their own narratives and take control of their stories — stories in which they may have felt out of control.
"In some ways, it gives young people a way to empower themselves to say, 'I'm going to take charge of my story. And rather than making it a secret and feeling shameful and trying to hide it, I'm going to share my story in my own way,'" she explained. "So I can imagine that would be quite empowering to say, 'here's a way I'm going to share my story and here's how I want it told and here's the theme,' or 'here's the lesson behind it all, as far as what I'm learning or what I'm going through or how it looks to other people.'"
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