NEWS

Social Media Raises Mental Health Awareness But Increases Risk of Flawed Self-Diagnosis

Teen girl sitting on her bed looking at her phone

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Key Takeaways

  • As the mental health conversation extends to social media, more people are self-diagnosing.
  • This can be dangerous when it provides misinformation or ignores the root cause of the feelings.
  • It's critical to remember that a diagnosis is not the only path forward for mental health care.

If you’ve spent any time on social media in the past few years, odds are you've noticed the vastly expanded mental health conversation occurring online. These platforms, especially TikTok, have become a space for people to share their mental health struggles and diagnoses, for experts to provide general insight, and for users to learn more about their feelings.

Certainty, the boost in mental health discussion has made great strides for visibility, reducing stigma, and helping people gain the insight they may have no other way to access. However, along with this has come an increase in people self-diagnosing based on unregulated information.

Certainly, there are few downsides to the boost social media has provided in the realm of mental health—particularly when it comes to visibility, access, and destigmatization. However, one key problem doctors are worried about is the growing prevalence of people diagnosing themselves based on unregulated information.

Understanding the Risks

There are a few risks to self-diagnosing with social media. According to Hannah Guy, MSW, a licensed clinical social worker, and certified clinical trauma professional, self-diagnosing can lead to receiving the wrong treatment and interventions down the line. If you eventually see a mental health professional, they may correct the diagnosis, but, unlike many physical conditions, mental health is greatly informed by the history a patient presents.

Billie Katz, PsyD

There are also high comorbidities across mental health conditions, so while you may correctly identify yourself as having ADHD, you may miss important markers of other mental health disorders, such as depression or mania.

— Billie Katz, PsyD

Another problem comes from hearing a person discuss one or two points you resonate with and assuming you must have the same mental health issue as them. “There are often overlapping symptoms that can both be indicative of a mental health diagnosis—anxiety, panic attacks—or a significant medical condition—heart attack," says Dr. Billie Katz, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor in psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. 

Katz continues, "There are also high comorbidities across mental health conditions, so while you may correctly identify yourself as having ADHD, you may miss important markers of other mental health disorders, such as depression or mania."

Katz is seeing an increase in patients self-diagnosing, often entering a session asking if they have a certain condition based on a recent TikTok they saw. She recommends that anyone questioning if they qualify for a specific diagnosis do their research and contact a mental health professional. 

Of course, saying you should speak with a mental health professional is more straightforward than doing so. “It is a privilege in America to not only have access to mental health treatment but to quality mental health treatment,” says Guy.

In addition, seeking professional help can feel intimidating or almost impossible. “Stigma around seeking mental health care persists for many marginalized communities,” says Juliette McClendon, PhD, director of medical affairs at Big Health. She adds that this, along with the inaccessibility of mental health care for so many, “exacerbates inequities.” 

If You Lack Access to Care

With this in mind, Guy, Katz, and McClendon recommend exploring the following resources and actions if a mental health professional is unaccessible to you:

  • Speak with your primary care doctor about your symptoms and treatment options
  • Look for organizations that offer sliding scale fees for sessions, such as Open Path
  • Learn more about different disorders and treatment options from trusted sources such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the American Psychological Association (APA), the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT), and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
  • Approach your employer to see what mental health services they may offer
  • Look into moving onto a family member’s insurance plan 
  • See if your community has free support groups

How To Approach Mental Health Content On Social Media

You can gain so many benefits from mental health conversations on social media—as long as you don’t take each point as fact and a complete picture of your health. With this in mind, Guy says to “approach the content with curiosity.”

“It can be extremely validating and normalizing to see someone else who also experiences similar discomforts and struggles as your own,” adds Guy. “There can be plenty of benefits if you maintain that mindset of curiosity. Social media isn’t, in fact, all bad. It can be a great way to receive support in ways you wouldn’t otherwise have received. For many, struggling with mental health can be stigmatized and bring about a sense of shame. Social media can play a role in normalizing someone’s experience and maybe even give them the courage to admit they need help.”

This shift also has spurred social media platforms to try cultivating a place for mental health discussion. In September 2021, TikTok announced new guidelines for users to share their mental health experiences, support resources when searching specific terms such as “#suicide” and a Safety Center guide for eating disorders. A month later, Pinterest followed Tiktok’s lead by announcing a feature called Haven. The platform billed it as an “anti-burnout oasis,” including everything from journal prompts to calming imagery.

Hannah Guy, a licensed clinical social worker

It is a privilege in America to not only have access to mental health treatment but to quality mental health treatment.

— Hannah Guy, a licensed clinical social worker

While looking at the benefits and drawbacks of social media’s open mental health conversation, it’s essential to remember that diagnoses aren’t the end all be all in mental health acknowledgment and treatment. In fact, Guy says focusing solely on diagnoses can end up causing more harm than good. She provides the example of major depressive disorder, which requires a person to meet specific criteria to receive a diagnosis. However, not meeting enough doesn’t change that you’re not feeling well.

“Having a diagnosis can be extremely validating for people. However, not meeting the criteria for a diagnosis can be just as invalidating,” says Guy. “If you're sad. You are sad. You don't need to be diagnosed with depression in order for your feelings of sadness to be valid.” 

What This Means For You

Stay aware of where you're getting your information while exploring your mental health. Social media is a wonderful resource for increasing awareness and removing stigma around social media conditions. However, it is not regulated or targeted directly to you, so use it as a jumping off point.

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  1. American Family Physician. Depression: Screening and diagnosis.