With the power of the internet at one’s fingertips, the trend for bypassing more traditional avenues for diagnosing mental health conditions is fast becoming a trend.
In fact, within certain demographic groups, it is becoming fashionable to rely on social media platforms and web-based videos for some to form their own opinion and assign a label to what they are experiencing.
Such practices are rapidly replacing the more traditional approach to consulting with a qualified medical practitioner – a practice that some professionals consider reckless at best and highly dangerous in the worst cases.
Is the answer always online?
In this modern age, when the answer to seemingly any question can be found at the end of just a few keystrokes in a search engine, there is a growing trend for individuals to self-diagnose themselves with the assistance of so-called mental health’ experts,’ rather than seeking qualified medical advice.
While such practices might help reduce the time between the onset or recognition of potential mental health issues and attempting to obtain advice, misdiagnosis is also a real risk – the gravity of which should not be ignored.
And while it would be incongruous to suggest that certain individuals do not obtain a degree of solace and inner calm from thinking they have correctly identified the mental health condition which they believe they are suffering, it also follows that an incorrect self-diagnosis can mean a genuine mental health issue is potentially ignored or goes untreated altogether.
The situation today
Within certain groups, such as young adults who are heavy users of social media, the self-diagnosis of specific mental health conditions is increasingly replacing the more formal methods of diagnosis.
According to a report published by Psychology Today, such conditions include ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder). While the information on such conditions might be freely available online, it might not always be accurate.
This matter of accuracy, or the lack thereof, gives mental health practitioners the most cause for concern. With the internet existing for the most part as an unsubstantiated and unregulated source of information, anyone holding themselves out to be an ‘expert’ can proffer advice and guidance to those who seek it, offering no guarantees or safety nets should that advice turn out to be incorrect or harmful.
Indeed, many see even the use of the terminology ‘self-diagnosis’ as disingenuous. Usage of the term ‘diagnosis’ implies that there has been some professional medical input in the process somewhere along the line. Not only that but there is also an implication, it is argued, that lay people can be actively involved in diagnosing mental health conditions.
Such an implication can be dangerous as it can attract those who might be vulnerable from a mental health standpoint to self-treat their condition, with no real understanding of its cause or effects.
It is also argued that in this world of social media and online influence, diagnosis of mental health conditions becomes fair game, falling into the hands of the general public, who have no expertise in doing so, while simultaneously releasing certain medical conditions from any form of formal medical control.
A dangerous trend on social media
The prevalence of self-diagnosis of mental health conditions is a worrying trend. According to Psychology Today, there has been an explosion in recent times of user-generated content available on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.
For example, hashtags on TikTok in 2021 relating to the diagnosis of ADHD numbered 2.7 billion views, with those for Tourette’s Syndrome numbering 2.5 billion and 1.5 billion for DID. Other conditions which appear to lend themselves to self-diagnosis include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism, and borderline personality disorder.
Those videos online where creators share their first-hand experiences or battles with a particular condition appear to be the most popular. Such videos, where the creator gives a run-down of their symptoms and explains how attaching a diagnosis to those symptoms gave them a sense of release, or closure, leading to a greater degree of self-understanding, would appear to be the most popular in terms of hits.
Interestingly, a recent report published by the British Medical Council illustrated the growing dependency on online videos posted on YouTube and highlighted the reliance on information regarding mental health conditions, which may not actually be true.
The BMC study found that in excess of half of the videos observed, 57.2% had a running time of fewer than 5 minutes. Experts found 38.6% of videos to contain misleading content. Of the videos watched, only 5% were rated as ‘very useful’.
Notably, there was a significantly higher number of likes in the misleading group of videos compared to the likes in the very useful group.
Other external influences
However, social media alone cannot be held wholly accountable for the growing trend in self-diagnosis. Other sources, such as internet searches, newspaper and magazine articles, conversations with friends and relatives, and advertisements from pharmaceutical companies, peddle stories regarding particular disorders that can often resonate with the recipient.
While some might find such widespread availability of information overwhelming, particularly where there are conflicts within the messages being put out, others will seek out their own diagnosis and achieve some form of epiphany when they believe they have successfully done so.
Risks versus rewards
As said, self-diagnosis has its benefits but also its pitfalls. For example, imagine a person believing they have a particular condition, having diagnosed themselves from the information they have accessed online.
What happens when that person’s symptoms do not improve over time? What happens if that person seeks medical advice later to be told that their self-diagnosis was wrong and that the practitioner offers another diagnosis as an alternative?
The individual might accept the alternative diagnosis with good grace and learn an important lesson along the way about the risks involved in relying on unregulated sources for medical advice.
However, there is also the risk that the practitioner’s opinion is dismissed and that the individual leaves angry and frustrated with the medical practitioner. Still, most of all, confused, stressed, and in a potentially worse state of mental health as a result.
Studies have found that media and commercial influences do not include clinical phraseology in their output. Instead, they rely on using words and phrases that will resonate with their audience on a real-life basis.
However, it is often the case that such phrases fail to convey the complete picture of a specific condition. Consequently, the end-user is only receiving half the story and making decisions about their treatment thereon.
The reality is that self-diagnosis cannot be prevented. And while it may help some in the short term, its effects could have a detrimental impact on the individual and their mental health in the longer term.
The medical industry needs to fight back and swim against the tide by deterring people from the plethora of self-diagnostic tools available. The professional mental health industry needs to attract such individuals back to a safe harbor, where their condition can be diagnosed in a safe, confidential environment with trustworthy and robust medical expertise firmly behind any diagnoses or advice provided.
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