TikTok’s @TherapyJeff Brings Mental Health to the Masses: 'People Are Speaking Up More About Their Needs'
Known for delivering no-nonsense relationship advice, therapist Jeff Guenther emphasizes communication, validation and honesty — with a touch of levity
Jeff Guenther can hardly believe it himself.
The therapist went from living a normal life in Portland, Ore., running his private practice and being active in the mental health community, to a TikTok star known as @TherapyJeff in a just a few months.
"The transition for my current clients was a weird one," Guenther, 42, tells PEOPLE. "But we've all made it through safely!"
Now he helps his 2.6 million followers navigate their trickiest relationship issues, whether it's lies people tell themselves when they're hooking up with someone in a committed relationship or how to cope with the one who got away. And he does it with a nuanced humor that fans love.
He definitely knows what he's talking about: Relationships have been Guenther's specialty since 2008, when he transitioned from family therapy to seeing adult patients who felt anxious in their relationships. “I was exploring codependency way before it was cool on TikTok,” he says, laughing.
Guenther decided to try his own hand at social media in the aftermath of the pandemic. “During the pandemic I got Zoom fatigue from only seeing clients on the computer — I wasn't able to connect with them in the same way,” he says. Unable to concentrate on anything but his patients, he let his creative projects slide. "I watched the first 40 seasons of Survivor," he says." After that I was replenished and wanted to get back to being really creative.
“I was scrolling on TikTok and mental health was trending and I was like, I can do this." He posted his first video in Sept. 2021. His fourth one went viral. “I got really into it and very excited and I love the feedback," he admits. "I'm probably too addicted to the validation, but I'm fine with it because I'm aware of it."
TherapyJeff's content also helps people better understand themselves, including their attachment style, triggers and needs. “A lot of my content revolves around validation, like, I'm validating your feelings, and your emotional experience is real. There's a lot of people speaking up more about their needs, and what they're wanting and expecting," he says.
It's different from when he first started his practice as a licensed professional counselor.
“The bar has been raised when it comes to emotional intelligence," he says. "Now we expect our partners to be able to communicate better or more clearly or honestly."
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Known for his graphic tees (mostly of “cringe ‘90s bands — I fully own it and I love them”), Guenther also crosses into family territory at times. “The way that we show up in romantic relationships is heavily influenced by our relationships with our parents or caregivers or family or siblings growing up,” he explains.
"I try to take a holistic approach: It’s not just your fault or your partner's fault, but it's your parents' fault," he jokes. "That's who we can really blame for your problems."
Then he gets more serious: “It's us that needs to take responsibility for actually addressing those problems so that we don't pass them on to other people that we love, or our kids if we decide to have them.”
While Guenther still maintains his private practice, he only sees about 10-12 people a week and only if they were his previous clients. “ I haven't taken on any new clients because I don't know how to handle that. People are fan-girling! "
But that doesn’t stop them from asking. “In my disclaimers I say that I will not respond to DMs or give personal advice — it’s not ethical for me to do that.” He will use comments and questions to inspire his content, however. “About 75% of the content I make is from questions and feedback that I get from people.”
The most popular topic? Breakups. "I talk a lot about what healthy relationships should look like," he says. “People take that and compare it to the relationship that they're in.” When he is recognized in public, he says, it's usually by women who stop and thank him for helping them realize they needed to change their situation. "They really have very kind words to say, like, you got me through a really rough time."
And that, he says, is rewarding.
“For most of my career, there was this gatekeeping thing about therapy where you could see a therapist if you had insurance, if you had a lot of money, if you had a lot of therapists in your city. You had to be privileged in a few different ways in order to access therapy and get this interesting insight. Of course, it's different than individualized therapy but it still gives more access.”
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At the same time, he admits that social media use — even scrolling mindlessly about mental health topics — can be detrimental. “If you use social media too much, it will probably have a negative mental health effect. It's weird because I guess I am part of the problem. But content creators also help shine a light on your mental health, making you more thoughtful and aware of it.
"And TikTok creates amazing communities where people like feel like they are seen and understood and valued in ways that they've never been before." It's one of the reasons why, as part of May's Mental Health Awareness Month, TikTok announced a $2M donation of ad credits to organizations working on supporting mental well-being.
To navigate social media platforms in a healthy way, Guenther urges people to create their own boundaries. “We need to continue to educate people to check in with themselves. It’s almost like intuitive eating where you could eat mindlessly and not even think about it. You're not checking in with your body until all of a sudden, you're just like, I feel horrible. But if you're being thoughtful about the things that you're putting in your body, or the things that you're watching on social media, then you can be like a lot more balanced about your approach.”
Next up for Guenther is a book, which is coming out next summer.
And for anyone out there who is wondering, yes, he is in a relationship — with another therapist. "We are peers and she is whip-smart, emotionally intelligent and very funny," he says.
“She knows that TherapyJeff is just a character. But she gets the real version.”
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