The problem with self-diagnosing

Teens are turning to social media to diagnose themselves with mental health conditions

Illustration of medical ephemera and a smartphone
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

The rise of self-diagnoses — using information from the internet and social media to determine whether one suffers from a condition — especially of mental health like autism and ADHD, has medical professionals concerned. The phenomenon is most common in teens who get information from TikTok. At times, the "content is so relatable and convincing" that people believe they have a disease even without professional discretion, according to clinical technology company Tebra.

"Teens are coming into our office with already very strong opinions about their own self-diagnosis," Dr. Larry D. Mitnaul, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the founder and CEO of well-being coaching company Be Well Academy, told CNN. "When we talk through the layers of how they came to that conclusion, it's very often because of what they're seeing and searching for online and most certainly through social media."

Why is it happening?

Some experts believe that people who self-diagnose mental conditions, especially teens, "may be over-identifying with a specific label or diagnosis," because a "diagnosis can be used as a shield or justification of behavior in social situations," CNN explained. Essentially, having a diagnosis reduces people's expectations of them, especially at a time where they may feel increased social pressure or insecurity. "With the mounting pressure that young people face to be socially competitive, those teens with more significant insecurities may feel that they will never measure up," said Alexandra Hamlet, a clinical psychologist, to CNN.

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In some cases, kids and teens are "confusing normal feelings, such as sorrow or restlessness, with serious conditions, such as depression or ADHD," wrote Téa Santoro in a column for Michigan Daily. Social media is "blurring the line between what is a mental illness and what isn't," mainly because many people's experiences are relatable. However, this is also likely a result of mental health deterioration brought on by the pandemic.

"They're just looking for answers as to why they're not feeling OK, and they have suffered extraordinary challenges with lockdowns and the pandemic," Pat McGory, a professor and psychiatrist and the executive director of youth mental health service Orygen, told The Guardian. "There is a surge in young people suffering from genuine serious conditions like eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and self-harming."

Getting official medical diagnoses can also be difficult. The American Psychological Association predicts that wait times for mental health services are only getting longer while the demand gets higher. "Whether it be via patient communities, online resources, new technologies, alternative therapies or whatever, you can't really blame people for taking their mental health matters into their own hands," wrote neuroscientist Dean Burnett for BBC Science Focus.

Is it harmful?

"A great concern is that adolescents may be making faulty self-diagnoses and treatment plans in the absence of professional insight," Corey H. Basch, a professor of public health at William Paterson University of New Jersey, told The New York Times. This can cause people to take the wrong steps in dealing with a condition that could exacerbate problems.

Research also suggests that social media use itself is causing worse mental health, especially in young adults and teens. Platforms can increase depression and insecurity, especially in the youth, and the information on mental health could be a source of comfort for people already struggling. "Often with these self-diagnosed disorders and tic disorders, there is an underlying anxiety or depression there that is probably the root cause of whatever is going on," a Melbourne pediatrician told The Guardian. "And maybe that root cause is manifesting in this way because they've seen it on TikTok."

A self-diagnosis can be "like a sentencing," Linden Taber, a school counselor, told CNN. "There isn't always a mental health professional there to walk them through the complexity of the diagnosis, dispel myths and misconceptions or offer hope."

Is it helpful?

Self-diagnosis is not a new phenomenon, but it has gained new prevalence through social media. People have looked up symptoms using WebMD and similar sources to discern medical conditions. However, diagnosing mental health conditions is a "tricky, complex process, even for trained professionals," Burnett continued. This makes the problem of self-diagnosis harder to manage.

Despite this, a lot of good has come out of social media regarding mental health. "One of the positives of the internet and social media is that they readily connect vulnerable and isolated people," Burnett remarked. Platforms like TikTok allow people to "easily, and safely, share their experiences with like-minded folk who've gone through similar things."

Self-diagnoses are also not always wrong and have helped people put a name to what they are experiencing. "While less than half of people seek a medical professional's opinion after self-diagnosing, 82% of those people have their diagnosis confirmed," Rachel Kirsch of Tebra told Healthnews. "So while seeking the input of a medical professional is certainly encouraged, the low level of incorrect self-diagnoses suggests that negative side effects of inaccurate self-diagnoses aren't presenting a substantial problem."

The good news is that social media has caused mental health to become less stigmatized and has encouraged people to get the help they need. According to the Times, "Finding a positive, supportive community online can be powerful, especially for those who are marginalized or who lack access to mental health resources."

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Devika Rao

Devika Rao is a staff writer for The Week. She graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Environment and Sustainability and a minor in Climate Change. Previously, she worked as a Policy and Advocacy associate in the nonprofit space advocating for environmental action from the business perspective. She is passionate about the environment, books, and music.