Light, engaging approach to serious business of behavioral health attracts a million TikTok followers
A Q&A with “Evan the (mental health and addiction) Counselor”
This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
I first met Evan Lieberman in a Zoom-type meeting after a mutual friend connected us. It was early afternoon on a weekday. He was cooking a pot of homemade chili in his Minneapolis home; focused obsessively (his words) on a to-do list and what he needed to cross off before heading to the beach; and reminiscing about how a visit to his brother in January turned into a spontaneous six-month stay in Australia. The addiction and mental health counselor’s deadpan humor and aggressively chill vibe betrayed a notable ambition and work ethic. In just a few short years, Lieberman has started several businesses and become an influential voice on social media. Known as “Evan the Counselor” on TikTok, where he has an astonishing 1 million+ followers, Lieberman combines comedy with valuable clinical insights and his own experience as a person in recovery to reach the modern mainstream with helpful educational content. He also runs a telehealth company, Hybrid Counseling; a sober living company, Hybrid Housing; and a behavioral health recruiting agency, The Helpers Inc. — all ventures he founded. And, oh by the way, he’s writing a book. Who has the time, right?
What does recovery look like for you?
Well, from a clinical standpoint, recovery is no longer experiencing symptoms of a substance use disorder or suffering consequences from drugs and alcohol. However, from a broader perspective, recovery can mean whatever you want. Chemical health is on a continuum; it refers to the relationship between an individual and substances, and everyone gets to choose the relationship they have with substances.
Personally, my recovery is abstinence-based. I decided a long time ago that life is so much better without substances, and it’s not worth the risk to try to go back and control my use. More than just fear, I want to keep receiving the benefits that come from recovery. These benefits include a supportive network, opportunities beyond my wildest imagination, and just being happier in general. Being part of the recovery community has given me so much, and I believe that each person’s path to recovery should be as unique as they are.
What does it mean to you to be an advocate for recovery?
To me, being an advocate for recovery means offering valuable support. This support can take many forms, from backing organizations that assist individuals with substance use and mental health disorders to being an empathetic friend who’s willing to lend an ear or help someone access the treatment they need. My role as an advocate involves not only providing emotional encouragement but also spreading the crucial message that recovery is possible. I believe that letting people know help is available, whether through personal conversations or public awareness campaigns, creates hope and can make a real difference in someone’s life.
A lot of people try to go “viral” but only a few succeed. For others, it happens almost accidentally. How did your TikTok account gain so many followers?
Well, it felt like a slow build, but in the grand scheme of things, it all happened pretty fast. I dedicated myself to learning new skills like how to write, shoot, edit, and share videos more effectively. My content started to resonate with people, particularly during the peak of the pandemic when many were home and feeling bored or struggling with mental and chemical health.
I believe my videos provided a sense of connection, entertainment and education. With every video I posted, the views went up on average. This was happening at a time when TikTok was experiencing explosive growth, and the overall topic I was covering seemed to strike a chord with viewers. Ultimately, I believe it was a balanced mix of luck and a concerted effort to develop the abilities required to make quality content. The combination of timing, relevance, and continuous improvement played a significant role in gaining so many followers.
In addition to TikTok, where you have more than 1 million followers, you have content on YouTube and Instagram and produce your own podcast, Evan the Counselor LIVE. How would you describe what seems to be resonating with your content, and what have you learned from the engagement you’ve received?
For the specific content I create, I believe there are two overarching reasons why it resonates with people. First, people enjoy learning about mental health and substance use disorders. I try to pull the curtain back, providing a glimpse into how professionals understand and treat these complex issues, and demystifying the mechanisms underlying mental health to make the subject more accessible.
Second, I also aim to entertain. By infusing my content with dark humor, I make topics that can often feel off-limits more approachable. I believe laughter can heal, so I push the boundaries a bit, allowing us all to laugh at ourselves and the sometimes-absurd realities of mental health or substance use disorders. Further, the engagement I’ve received has been invaluable. Audience feedback has helped me fine-tune my approach, ensuring that I strike the right balance between informing and entertaining. I’ve learned to continuously innovate and evolve my content based on my audience’s needs and interests while staying true to myself. This close connection with my followers has shaped the success of my platforms.
What are your secrets to time management and juggling everything you have going on?
Oh god … let’s just say I’m doing the best I can, and not always doing the greatest job at juggling everything. I love taking on new and exciting projects but can easily get overwhelmed. My strategy involves seeking all the help I can, whether through program managers in my counseling services, housing, or video editors to help with my longer-form content. Organization is key for me, especially since I have an ADHD brain to a high degree. I’ve had to learn various coping strategies to keep organized, such as time-blocking or the stereotypical task list, and I’ve found them to be quite helpful in allowing me to keep everything afloat. It’s been a discipline, but these strategies enable me to maintain a balance and keep pushing the needle forward.
What are the biggest challenges and opportunities you see in behavioral health?
The field of behavioral health is faced with significant challenges, particularly as so many people are struggling, and the need for services continues to grow. A lack of professionals to meet this demand, combined with insufficient funding and limited access to necessary healthcare and social services, exacerbates the problem. These challenges have been magnified in recent times due to the pandemic and an overall feeling of disconnect.
However, these challenges also present opportunities, especially for those wanting to enter this field. The demand has led to plentiful job opportunities in many areas, and wages have increased significantly, allowing practitioners to make a better living than they once could.
Moreover, the complexity of the problems we face calls for innovative thinking. If you have a knack for innovation, the field needs creative thinkers and go-getters who are willing to develop new ideas and approaches to tackle these intricate issues. It’s a demanding but rewarding area that offers the chance to make a tangible difference in people’s lives.
Tell us about the book you’re writing …
Well, I guess I can share the running title I have at the moment (subject to change): The Communication Algorithm: Navigating Difficult Personalities in Six Steps.
Around six years ago, I started writing a 1- to 2-page communication guide for my clients to help them navigate difficult interpersonal situations such as a demanding boss or family member struggling with a severe addiction. Well, the guide still isn’t complete, and as of now, it’s closer to 200 pages (again, subject to change). My motivation has waxed and waned through these years, as writing a book was more difficult than I could have imagined. But in that time, I have been able to test, tweak and refine the model of communication I call ‘Conscious Communication’ to offer readers a simple formula for managing conflict and enhancing relationships using the skills of a therapist and other well-tested approaches.
The book is filled with metaphors like the overarching algorithm to make communication decisions. Further, I include pertinent stories from my practice and even fun historical lessons to highlight these concepts and make a case for a more measured, empathetic, and thought-out approach to communicating with the people in our lives.
For about two years, I have said, “I am almost done,” and meant it, so I will refrain from declaring that. But I think I have most of the content written and a good structure in place, so hopefully, “soon,” I can submit it to publishers with my fingers crossed. But more importantly, I want to create the best product possible, no matter how long it takes or painstaking it is.”