A fortunate result of large social media platforms such as TikTok or Twitter is that the circulation of new ideas, no matter how idiosyncratic or outrageous they are, is always encouraged. From people sharing their favorite recipes to being vulnerable about some of the most traumatic experiences in their lives, the embrace of sharing the most intimate parts of your life has undoubtedly helped create a safer space for those who feel like they’re alone in their experience.
A particular sphere of influence that has grown considerably is the discussion of ideas surrounding mental illness. While openly speaking about issues surrounding mental health has helped to destigmatize it, it has had the unintended effect of impressionable children and teens looking at symptoms of these disorders and attributing them to themselves. With events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of people spending hours per day on apps like TikTok resulting in more time for opening up to the prospect of having a mental illness, there has been a corresponding spike in hospital cases surrounding them as well. Conditions such as autism, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder (DID), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and Tourette’s have all been prone to an unusual and rapid increase in cases in recent years. While the pandemic itself is contributory, seeing mental illness in social media plays a key role as well.
Self-diagnosis, the process by which individuals diagnose themselves with mental illnesses without consulting a healthcare professional, comes with a myriad of problems, even putting aside its prominent effect of invalidating struggles that have not been taken seriously for so long already. Convincing yourself that you have a debilitating disease not only takes away from the true struggle that those who truly experience it have to deal with. It also reinforces the historic confirmation bias that already exists when attempting to understand another’s struggle, and people assume that others who have their same condition but suffer other symptoms simply do not have the condition. Additionally, taking advice from social media platforms rampant with misinformation can lead to inaccurate diagnoses that can lead to further misinformation and distress from those who consume such harmful information.
But one of the most pressing and obvious problems that self-diagnosis leads to is that more often than not, it is just plain wrong. With the nuances and subtleties that come with the diagnosis of mental illness, single symptoms can be telling of a myriad of different issues and diseases, and can even be unique to an individual patient. But not only that, the assumption of a specific mental illness can prevent the true diagnosis of a symptom that may be telling of a more serious, underlying medical problem.
But the problem that lies with self-diagnosis is not only the action of doing it itself, but also the idea that it is something to resort to in the first place. If a professional medical diagnosis was as easy to obtain as a self-diagnosis, the profession of doctor would not be so common. Many factors prevent any average teen from obtaining outside help, with one of them being the mere fact that the help is from the outside. It can be difficult to trust and put confidence into unknown professionals, especially for children whose parents are disapproving or unbelieving of them.
For many children, their phone is the most approachable resource they may have towards even recognizing any difficulties with mental illness they may have. Factors such as cultural beliefs, low income and even implicit racial and ethnic biases that lie in the medical field can prevent those who actively need help from seeking it. Trusting another person to somehow articulate the most unexplainable yet authentic of emotions and feelings inside of you into a single label can feel like one of the most overwhelming, vulnerating experiences for someone. In short, self-diagnosis can be a safety measure, an act of desperation rather than of ignorance in most cases.
The de-stigmatization of mental health, in this way, has become a double-edged sword. Encouraging the discussion of mental illness allows for more people to acknowledge the problem within themselves in the first place, but also results in the dangerous practices of self-diagnosis. Along with combating misinformation as well as unlearning traditional cultural views that have prevented the accurate diagnosis of mental health problems, self-diagnoses can be prevented through seeking professional help that isn’t solely therapy or psychiatry, which many can’t afford. If you seek help, the best thing you can do for yourself is to talk to someone who is experienced in dealing with such circumstances. The greatest harm that you can do for yourself and those around you is to incorrectly diagnose yourself.
Sreelakshmi Panicker is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.