MAINE, USA — The internet can be a tough place to navigate. In the worst of cases, people hide behind their screens, typing cruel comments and mean messages they'd never dare to say in-person. In the best of cases, though, connections formed online can make people feel less alone when they're struggling — potentially even saving lives.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, three Mainers turned to their phones, creating videos and posting them to TikTok for the world to see. Through algorithm and appeal — their content essentially blew up, going viral and earning them hundreds of thousands of followers. Despite that newly found fame, these women have stayed true to their roots, using their platforms to talk openly about their own battles with mental health. These are their stories.
Meredith Steele (@babiesofsteele)
Meredith Steele of Bath will likely never forget the moment her life changed forever, turning her into what she calls an "accidental influencer." It happened after she posted a joking video on TikTok about mowing the lawn — originally intended just for her friends. Its reach went far beyond that, though.
"It got 4 million views overnight. All of these people were like, 'We want more videos!'" Steele said.
After that, Steele's presence online grew. She has nearly 850,000 followers on TikTok and 131,000 followers on Instagram.
Steele said she creates content primarily for women and mothers with mental health issues, as a way to find connection. In fact, she said her insights reveal about 90 percent of her following is women ages 24 to 44 years old.
"During the pandemic when I was home, we weren't going anywhere," Steele said. "There wasn't really anybody to talk to, so I would talk through what I was going through to my phone, and people would be like, 'Me too!' I felt like it made me feel a little bit less alone."
Steele said she has people reach out to her, thanking her for validating their own experiences. That encouragement helps her push through the negativity she encounters when content sometimes goes out of her intended audience. As someone who has struggled with her own mental health — going all the way back to a suicide attempt as a teenager — Steele said that hate can be frustrating. It's why she wants to end misconceptions about anxiety and depression.
"I'm a blonde, smiley, loud lady with a nice family and a golden retriever. [People are] like, 'How could you possibly have depression? What could you be sad about?'" Steele said, later adding, "I think that we're all a little broken, and there's a lot wrong with all of us — myself included."
Steele said unlike other influencers who make curated content, she tries her best to be as authentic and in-the-moment as possible. Typically, she'll just head to her car to make a video — to get away from the chaos of her two kids, husband, dog, five cats, and eight chickens for a while. She said when those online connections come to fruition in real life, that makes everything worth it.
"There's a woman named Kristen who came up to me at the mall once, and she said just the kindest thing to me," Steele said. "I think it's so easy when you're online to forget that you're helping real people, too — not just a username and a little picture."
Jasmine Doncet Hall (@jasminealexius)
In 2019, Jasmine Doncet Hall of Bangor was having an anxiety attack. Instead of riding it out alone, she hit "record" on her phone. Then, that video spread throughout the internet. Now, she has 116,000 followers on TikTok and more than 6,000 followers on Instagram. She makes it a point to talk honestly with them about her mental health.
"I was diagnosed at 25 [years old] with Bipolar I Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder following right after," Doncet Hall said.
She said those diagnoses virtually changed her life. Suddenly, the way she was feeling had an explanation. She and her husband and three kids started going to therapy together to heal their issues. She said as she began to learn about Bipolar I and BPD, she started to share that knowledge with the Internet.
"Every day, I get message from those videos: 'I got diagnosed today because of you,' 'You saved my life,' 'You were the person that made me go get treatment,'" Doncet Hall said.
Doncet Hall said she wants others to get a second chance at a happier life like she did when she started addressing her own mental health needs.
"It literally hurts with how life-changing it has been for me to get better," Doncet Hall said. "I literally didn't think it was possible. I thought every day I was meant to not be here."
Doncet Hall said TikTok is "great" but Instagram is "extremely dark". To deal with any hate, she said she simply ignores, deletes, and blocks any harsh comments or messages or users. She said her main piece of advice to anyone who wants to follow a similar path is to just be authentic.
"Be real. Be raw. Everybody wants to see it. Everybody feels the exact same way that you feel," Doncet Hall said. "Every insecurity that you have, I can guarantee you that we would sit there and be like, 'Girl, me too! I'm just dying over here! Thank you for saying that.'"
Kristen Gingrich (@notyouraveragethrpst)
Of the three women NEWS CENTER Maine interviewed, Kristen Gingrich of Westbrook is the only one who has actual degrees in mental health. She's a licensed clinical social worker, a certified alcohol and drug counselor, and a certified clinical supervisor. For six and a half years, she has worked in community mental health right here in Maine, inspired to do so by her own experiences of losing someone in high school and not having a supportive relationship with her mother.
"I struggle with my mental health on the daily, but I've done my healing, and I'm aware of my own symptoms. I take medication," Gingrich said.
Gingrich said she also sees her own therapist and has had five therapists total since starting therapy at 18 years old. She said she recognizes that mental health therapy is a privilege in the United States, since it's so expensive and there are often long waiting lists. It's why she's hopeful about the impact social media could have.
"It's really just to break down that barrier of mental health and make it more accessible," Gingrich said.
Gingrich said there are definitely boundaries to be conscious of as a professional therapist online, but she tries her best to give education and validation to her 356,000 followers on TikTok and 106,000 followers on Instagram. She said her platforms started their exponential growth in April of 2020 when everyone was stuck at home.
"We are seeing people who have never experienced depression in their life experiencing it because their lives because of COVID-19 have changed so drastically," Gingrich said. "People lost businesses or jobs that they built from the ground up."
Gingrich said despite the negativity in our world, she's hopeful for the future because of Gen Z members and how open they are about mental health online. She said she's inspired by the way they discuss their internal challenges without hesitation on social media.
"They're like, 'I'm going to therapy.' 'Can I tell you what my therapist told me?' 'Oh, I have something my therapist told me that would resonate!'" Gingrich said. "They're talking about it no problem."
Gingrich said signs of suicidality people should look for in their loved ones include someone making jokes about hurting his or herself, isolating more, having increased mood swings, giving away their belongings, and not taking part in usual activities. She said the best thing to do is ask that person point-blank, "Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself?" Then, offer your support and help him or her find resources.
Let's Talk About It
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are resources right here in Maine that can help navigate through those thoughts and find a path to hope.
Maine Crisis Hotline: 1-888-568-1112
Maine teen text support
This peer support text line is for Maine youth 13 to 24 years old and is staffed by individuals 18 to 24. Talk about your feelings and get support from another young person. Daily from noon to 10 p.m. EST at 207-515-8398