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Commentary: Fake IMH doctors trolling TikTok users aren’t funny or original

SINGAPORE: There has been a growing trend of fake doctor profiles claiming to be from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) appearing all over popular social media app TikTok.

Their main goal seems to be calling out eccentric behaviours or people who they deem to be acting in ways that do not conform to societal norms. For instance, pseudo psychiatrists would leave comments on clips of people shouting or flailing their arms around for no obvious reason.

A content creator on TikTok who posted about the rise of such profiles found their comments section flooded with these “doctors” requesting he come down to IMH immediately for an appointment, or to “reassure” others that this content creator was their patient and to not take him seriously.

Many may view these acts as just harmless jokes. However, there are many issues we need to consider before brushing them off as such.

AN UNORIGINAL AND OUTDATED PUNCHLINE

For one, using IMH as the punchline of any joke in 2023 seems rather unoriginal and outdated, especially when there has been much effort to rehabilitate its image over the years.

These playground insults, where people threaten to send someone to IMH if they are behaving in a certain manner, have been around since the Institute’s early days as Woodbridge Hospital.

From the start, the hospital has faced an uphill battle for public acceptance and support for its important work in caring for those experiencing mental health challenges.

Using IMH as a punchline trivialises mental health issues and perpetuates their stigma. Such sentiment has been echoed by some content creators who recognise how continuing to engage in such “jokes” can prevent people from feeling safe talking about mental health issues online.

A recent NUS-led study paints a harrowing picture of the state of youth well-being, with one in three adolescents reporting mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety and loneliness. The study also found that media use is a coping mechanism for youths, which makes fostering a safe digital world even more pertinent.

At times, the growing visibility and apparent acceptance of the trend encourages others to join in on the “fun”. TikTok users would summon fake doctor profiles to videos they deem worthy of being laughed at.

The last thing people going through social and mental health challenges need is anonymous users making a joke out of their problems or cyberbullying them. It creates an online space where people feel unsafe speaking up about their experiences, being themselves or seeking help.

Furthermore, it is disrespectful to the hardworking doctors at IMH as they are now associated with people who aren’t saying the kindest things online.

TikTok is an international platform after all, and users abroad could walk away with the wrong impression of doctors in Singapore.

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HUMOUR AS A COPING MECHANISM

Nevertheless, despite the many reasons for why this trend should be ignored or stopped, it has its supporters as well, whose perspectives are valid and should be considered.

Some argue that humour on a platform such as TikTok tends to be more edgy or self-deprecating and that making light of such issues normalises them.

For the users behind the fake accounts, this may be how they choose to cope with their mental health challenges, possibly because they don’t have access to support elsewhere, or do not see their own issues as something to actively tackle.

Or maybe this is just the kind of humour these individuals are used to in their social circles, and they want to share it with others and spread the fun online.

They could also be joining in for a sense of community among other like-minded users who enjoy a similar brand of humour.

CANNOT IGNORE THE BROADER CONTEXT

Granted, while there are merits to such perspectives, we need to consider the broader context in which these jokes are carried out and the people they are targeted at.

The pseudo doctors’ outlandish and punny names, while clearly facetious, could be offensive to those who may not recognise them for what they are, especially people not from Singapore.

Coupled with the fact that there is still a stigma around IMH, the choice to identify as someone from IMH demonstrates a clear intention of using these perceptions to make fun of others.

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Additionally, the targets of these fake profiles tend to be individuals who are just living their lives and expressing themselves in unconventional ways.

This intentional selection suggests that the comments aren’t innocuous and are instead tools of harassment that weaponise mental health stigma.

Calling attention to the users behind the fake profiles could certainly backfire and spur them on, especially if their acts are driven by a need for attention and accomplishment.

Nevertheless, it is important we speak up and urge TikTok and other social media platforms to take concrete and swift action to mitigate the spread and longevity of such harmful trends. Doing so may go a long way in protecting vulnerable users, and cultivating an online space where everyone is respected.

At the end of the day, jokes are funny only when everyone is in on the fun. Harassment may seem like a joke until it happens to you.

Dr Jonathan Kuek is a mental health researcher and co-founder of Total Wellness Initiative Singapore, a prevention-oriented health and wellness social enterprise that aims to encourage people to be more proactive with their well-being.

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