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Digital healing: The rise of Insta-therapy

Scroll through Hazel Gale’s Instagram grid and you’ll find a familiar 2019 mosaic: a millennial-friendly montage of powder pink, slate and canary yellow backgrounds overlaid with quotes in crisp white tempus sans text. There are filtered pictures of coffee, wild swimming and candid gym snaps, and the odd piece-to-camera selfie video. A row of carefully compiled Insta-stories sits along the top.

Such are the trademarks of influence in the age of #wellness but Gale is no influencer — or certainly not the kind who shares #ootd or sponsored beauty product adverts. She is a qualified cognitive therapist with a practice in Hackney, and one of the dozens of mental health professionals using social media to reach those who may not otherwise be able to afford their services.

Despite more open discussion around therapy in recent years, cost remains a major barrier. One in four people in the UK are affected by mental illness, yet spending on such services amounts to just 11 per cent of the NHS budget. This forces many sufferers to look privately, the average cost of which is £55 a session in London.

Professionals such as Gale want to address this, in part by offering advice online. She is careful not to suggest that the therapy itself can be done over Twitter messages or Instagram DMs but those platforms are a start. Instead of posting motivational quotes or free chunks of verse like Instagram poets, her posts range from podcast and app suggestions to techniques for self-distancing, tackling anxiety and managing imposter syndrome — a “concise”, carefully composed post to hook you in, then a more detailed explanation written into the caption. These often link to Gale’s Facebook workshops, self-help articles and live Instagram discussions elsewhere online. A “virtual date” with the founder of Shelf Help book club Toni Jones in June was watched by more than 500 people. And it’s free.

“It’s all about starting the conversation,” Gale smiles from her bright, airy office in Kingsland Road. Her digital words are meant to catch people’s eye as they’re scrolling down their feed and aim to represent the eureka moment of a therapy session.

Gale, 39, started her account @hazel.gale.therapy last year after moving from her former career as a world kickboxing champion to qualified therapist. The career change was a result of her own experience with mental health: at 28, she suffered burnout and chronic fatigue caused by over-training.

“My head was in completely the wrong place,” she recalls. “I had eating disorders coming out of my ears, which is unfortunately a very common story for people in sports with weight categories. My body started to fail on me in many different ways.”

Looking back, she blames this on her “dissociation from [her] emotions”: “I wasn’t listening to them, so my body had to show me in another way — which was the burnout”. Her recovery taught her to confront her fear of failure and find a sense of purpose — key topics in her new book, The Mind Monster Solution (previously called Fight in reference to her boxing days).

Gale still coaches boxing at an amateur level, at FighterFit in Hoxton every week, and regularly refers to her former career on Instagram.

It’s part of what makes her who she is, and for Gale this is an important point: just because therapy is confidential, “that doesn’t mean the therapist has to be in hiding.”

In fact, sharing her sporting background has helped her to attract a more equal mix of genders than many therapists — crucial, when men currently make up just 36 per cent of therapy referrals in the UK. Currently, her clients are a 50/50 split of male and female, and a number of men have messaged her personally on Twitter to thank her for her book.

Bringing some personality into her profession is one way Gale wants to help counter what she calls the “old and stuffy model” of therapy, most commonly seen to involve sitting in a clinical-feeling room with an expensive, deadpan professional.

By contrast, social media is free and faceless, which can encourage sufferers to open up. Gale says her recently launched Facebook courses achieve a much higher completion rate than any that require face-to-face help.

“That’s the whole reason I do this,” says Gale, insisting her digital approach isn’t about boosting clients (she already has a three-month waiting list). “Sharing what I’ve learnt makes me feel purposeful. If I get a couple of people responding and saying, ‘This has really helped’, that’s all the payment I need.”

How does she approach the fact that social media is often at the cause of mental health problems? It’s all about curating your feed, she insists. “Stop following people who make you feel like crap” and instead, think of platforms such as Facebook and Instagram as a tool.