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Is there too much self-diagnosing of mental health disorders on social media? Professionals, advocates weigh in

Advocates and mental health professionals have noticed an uptick in self-diagnosis they say is linked to videos on social media describing mental health conditions.

TikTok videos
For some people, these videos encourage them to seek a medical professional’s opinion and begin therapy. For others, these videos overly simplify the everyday struggles people face living with a mental health disorder.
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TikTok is known for lots of different trends, but the newest trend has sparked conversation between people and medical professionals: videos that self-diagnose mental health disorders. 

For example, some videos talk about attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Text appears on the video saying things like, “If you have these symptoms, you have ADHD,” and “How to use TikTok for ADHD Diagnosing.” These videos usually show different images with music playing in the background and general symptoms like trouble with concentration or distractibility appearing on the screen. Other videos show a person asking questions of the viewer about whether they have experienced certain symptoms.

A majority of the time, the creators of these videos are not medical professionals. For some people, these videos encourage them to seek a medical professional’s opinion and begin therapy. For others, these videos overly simplify the everyday struggles people face living with a mental health disorder.

Several medical professionals, like Liza Meredith, an assistant teaching professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Minnesota and counselor at Mindpath College Health, see both pros and cons with social media content that targets specific mental health issues.

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“I see a lot of good that comes from it, but one of the problems, with the diagnosis piece in particular, [is] a lot of times these videos are pinpointing particular behaviors rather than talking about the psychological disorder itself, leading someone to think they might have something they don’t actually have,” Meredith said.

In addition, two different people diagnosed with the same mental disorder often do not function the same way or display the same symptoms, she said. A problem with these social media videos is they “paint disorders through a particular lens” that does not demonstrate the complexity of the disorders, according to Meredith. 

“It feels good and bad,” Meredith said. “It actually brings a lot of people out who have real psychological disorders that could benefit from treatment, but the problem is if someone is so fixated on the idea [they have a disorder], they can’t hear an alternative perspective.” 

Naomi Doriott-Larson, a licensed professional clinical counselor who sees patients in the Twin Cities suburbs, stressed the importance of being diagnosed by a medical professional instead of self-diagnosis based on these videos. 

“It’s really easy to look at a couple of symptoms and to assume a diagnosis,” Doriott- Larson said. “I think something a lot of people in the general public don’t realize is that a lot of mental health disorders can look like one thing but really be something else.”

Both Meredith and Doriott-Larson talked about the benefits that come from self-diagnosing but encouraged people to seek professional help after going through this process.

“Self-diagnosing can be helpful if you’re using it to be a critical thinker and using it to advocate for your own health, your own well-being,” Doriott-Larson said. “If something doesn’t make sense or you’re on medication that isn’t working, seek a professional opinion.”

For people who struggle with a mental health disorder, like Kristin Dieng, a local artist in the Twin Cities area, social media is an outlet to share different resources from medical professionals, especially with people who wouldn’t otherwise seek professional help. 

Dieng tries not to post about her mental health struggles online but has a link on her Instagram that leads to different resources on migraines and ADHD. A friend of Dieng’s looked into these resources and told Dieng she “saved her life.”

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Dieng, a member of Generation X, or those born between 1965 and 1980, has noticed people in her generation struggling to admit they suffer from mental health issues because they would rather say “I’m fine” and “learn to suck it up.”

“All these horrible things happen and we’re like ‘Yeah, well, but I’m here right?’” Dieng said.

Dieng said this contrasts with younger generations in which mental health has become “an open discussion,” and researchers have also pointed out this gap in acceptance.  

She added, though, women like her are seeing “informative” videos on social media that “strike a cord” with them, so they do research and have conversations with their doctors on narrowing down a diagnosis. While Dieng acknowledges there can be problems with self-diagnosis, she said it’s helpful when medical professionals post in the comments and correct misconceptions in the videos.

Similar to Dieng, Lorrie Gray, a life coach based in Salem, Oregon, has seen mental health videos and other content be “extremely beneficial” to people. 

Gray focuses on a holistic approach to therapy and supports the making of mental health videos across social media platforms. She said she’s seen videos made by medical professionals and others made by people who have been diagnosed with and are living with a particular mental illness. 

“Even if they don’t have letters behind their name but have a lot of life experience, I’ve still found them really helpful,” Gray said. 

A risk that comes along with mental health videos is misdiagnosing. Gray pushed back on this, though, saying a misdiagnosis can encourage people to seek professional help by getting a second opinion and do further research on different mental disorders. 

Gray stressed the importance of language when it comes to talking about mental health since it can be “more helpful” when forming an understanding about mental health conditions.

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Social media, according to Gray, is a place where people can display this language and come together to “normalize” different mental health issues. 

“People who have mental health issues, they often experience intense feelings of shame and isolation, and when you have those two things it becomes very dangerous,” Gray said. “They’re  looking for connection and community with people who understand them, and I think that is what people are finding on social media.”

Madison Roth is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment with MinnPost in spring 2023.