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Glamorizing mental illness: How social media sets a stage for self-diagnosis

Words by Mallory Pace

 

One night, as I was scrolling on TikTok into the late hours of the night, delusion and paranoia high, I switched over to Google, where I found a quiz: “Do I have OCD?.” Somehow, my TikTok feed algorithm had become flooded with videos on “signs you have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD),” and I started getting concerned that I was relating to so many of these videos. As I took the first quiz suggested on Google, I started thinking about the validity of what I was doing. Am I actually relating to these symptoms or am I only trying to because I’ve already convinced myself that this is what I’m going through? The truth is, no internet quiz or TikTok video can “diagnose” me with OCD, and even if it did, where’s the weight in that? Going to a real doctor was out of the question because deep down I knew I’d be wasting their time and my money, so why was I suddenly being convinced by a stranger on the internet that I have a plethora of mental illnesses but “I might just be good at hiding it”? In reality, if I was experiencing OCD or any of the other disorders that I was being led to believe I had, would I really be able to hide it? Or am I just falling victim to the powers of social media influence?

 

By now, everyone knows you can’t trust WebMD for diagnosing diseases, and we’re all warned not to take information on the internet as fact, but younger generations have claimed their own vehicle for health anxiety — TikTok. Social media, especially apps like TikTok, are increasingly becoming a means and support for self-diagnosing a plethora of mental illnesses and disorders. One quick search and you’ll find dozens of accounts, some real medical doctors, others random strangers, solely made for providing information on specific illnesses. While their intentions may be to help people feel less alone or raise awareness, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s having an adverse effect. The popularity of TikTok boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing people together in a time of heightened isolation, anxiety and depression as the world shut down. According to Statista, TikTok saw a significant increase in popularity during the pandemic, with a growth of 180% among 15-25 year old users, a demographic that was hit especially hard by the isolation the lockdown caused, so it makes sense for them to turn to the app for support and community. Social media can be great for just that, but there’s a line between advocating and raising awareness for certain disorders and almost promoting or recruiting people to have similar experiences. 

 

​​”Self-diagnosis is when someone believes that they have a mental health disorder without having received a diagnosis from a health professional,” said Dawn Witherspoon, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Florida and psychologist specializing in treating children and adolescents. “Misdiagnosis is the main concern. Although a person is the expert on themselves, their feelings, even their symptoms, that does not mean that they know what those symptoms mean.”

 

She said that there has been an increase in depression and anxiety in children and adolescents since the start of the pandemic due to factors like social distancing, schools closing and increased social media use. Unfortunately, she added, that increase has not returned to normal. A study published by the National Library of Medicine found that the prevalence of major depressive episodes among adolescents ages 12-17 increased from 8.1% to 15.8% between 2009 and 2019. Among girls, the increase was even more substantial — from 11.4% to 23.4% during the same 10-year period. That statistic should scare you; mental health challenges are rising in our youth, so as a society, we have to make sure we do what we can to combat this from continuing, not normalizing it as a part of growing up. 

 

This age group is among the more impressionable because they’re at a very vulnerable and transformative period of life. They’re trying to figure out who they are and what they want to become and find people to identify with. When they’re fed information online, implying they may have ADHD, depression or anxiety, if they have these few vague qualities, they might cling to it. But what actually may be happening is a normal part of growing up and growing into yourself. There have also been discussions that teenagers and students may use self-diagnosing as an excuse or cop-out for normal adolescent behavior. Posts like: “Do you have trouble focusing in class, often daydream or can’t seem to sit still for periods of time? You could have ADHD.” just might be symptoms of being a kid. In these developing years, we all find or experience certain qualities we don’t like, or feel “wrong,” but the solution isn’t to turn to social media to help explain it away with a diagnosis. Sometimes, there’s no need for a diagnosis or explanation, it could just be that they’re growing and changing. Don’t get me wrong, children and adolescents can and should be diagnosed if that really is the case, but that news should break from a real physician, not a video on TikTok. Again, mental illness should continue to be destigmatized, but it still leaves me wondering just how much young, impressionable children should be exposed to when it comes to serious mental illness. 

 

“These topics should be addressed developmentally appropriately in language and context, etc.,” Witherspoon said. “Social media does not always do that. The information may be factual (or not) but that does not mean it is presented in a way that is best for children. Young children still have magical thinking.”

 

With misdiagnosis, it’s often the case that if someone begins to experience new and distressing symptoms and turns to social media or WebMD for answers, they may take the first diagnosis as fact. Witherspoon compared it to someone going into the emergency room with extreme stomach pain and telling the doctor it’s their appendix. The doctor isn’t going to immediately operate without evaluating and coming to a diagnosis themselves in order to rule out other possibilities with similar presentation. Extreme stomach pain could be appendicitis, but it also could be a person’s gallbladder, a stomach flu, cancer, diverticulitis, kidney stones, etc. The same goes for mental health where someone may self-diagnose themself with depression or anxiety and begin self-help remedies. If their diagnosis is correct, that could be helpful; if there’s an underlying physical or medical issue at play, without a proper diagnosis, they could be mistreating themselves or at the very least, delaying actual treatment. 

 

“When the ER physician orders multiple tests, it is not because they don’t believe the patient, it is because they know that symptoms can be related to more than one disorder, and that treatment will vary by disorder.” Witherspoon said. “It is important to get the diagnosis correct in both physical and mental health.”

 

When a seed is planted in a child or teenager’s mind that they may be experiencing a type of mental illness that can explain why they do or feel certain things, it sticks.  It becomes an internal broken record until it either fizzles away or manifests into something else. We could also blame confirmation bias, the tendency to favor information that confirms or strengthens one’s already established beliefs or values. In a blog post published by the University of Denver Colorado, Jessica Jaramillo, crisis coordinator and clinical supervisor, wrote that a common example of automatically assuming labels is how many people conclude their ex-partner is a “narcissist,” or how every bad experience in life appears to be “trauma.” She wrote that one of the biggest disadvantages of self-diagnosis is it can fail to accurately assess for a differential diagnosis or comorbidities, meaning it can be incredibly difficult for an individual to rule out conditions that present similarly or understand how overlapping conditions work. 

 

According to the blog, “It is also important to recognize that most of us will struggle with some, if not most, of these symptoms at some point in their lives (being impulsive, irritable, depressed, anxious, experiencing mood swings, lack of concentration, having low motivation, etc.), but duration, frequency, intensity, the amount of co-occurring symptoms, and to what extent it impairs function are all pivotal factors when diagnosing. Mental health conditions are complex and often require specialized knowledge to be understood, and a self-diagnosis may lead us to overlook or misunderstand important aspects of the mental health experience.”

 

In my own example, I routinely get anxiety that I have left the house with my hair straightener turned on, the oven on or a candle burning, even if I didn’t use any of them that morning. More often than not, I can push the thoughts aside and continue about my day. Other times, I make my roommate check for me. I even started taking photos of my unplugged straightener so I can feel at ease. When I started noticing these obsessive thoughts about my apartment burning down and being my fault is when I started looking into OCD. Like I said earlier, I convinced myself I was relating to these TikTok videos when in reality, I’m experiencing a pang of anxiety over a seemingly common concern, but it does not affect my daily life, and that part is key. It’s annoying, sure, but it’s never actually caused me any uncontrollable worry that I can’t push past. Though sometimes it can be hard to compartmentalize what’s a normal side effect of being a human and what’s actually coming from a chemical imbalance in your brain or some other external factor beyond your control. 

 

Most scientists believe that mental illnesses result from problems with communication between neurons in the brain, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Someone with depression, for example, may have lower levels of neurotransmitter serotonin. Other factors that play a role, which are often combined in someone with mental illness, are environmental, genetic and social influences. Illnesses that are most likely to have a genetic component include autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and ADHD, according to NIH. Social factors may include the death of a loved one, abuse and neglect, exposure to violence or a negative relationship with a parent. 

 

Witherspoon explained that a common feature of mental disorders is they cause distress and impairment and many are related to neurological issues, sometimes referred to as neuropsychiatric disorders, a blanket medical term that includes a range of mental health disorders that involve both neurology and psychiatry. There are many causes and reasons for why an individual faces mental health challenges, and education and destigmatization should be at the forefront, but it’s also not something to take lightly. 

 

Something disturbing I’ve seen trending on social media is where people claim their quirks and odd behavior as being “neurodivergent” or something similar and making it a personality trait. I just find it a bit unsettling to almost make a joke out of something as serious as a neurological problem, diagnosed or not. All experiences are valid, same for how someone chooses to cope. It’s also my opinion that oversaturating the internet with experiences with certain mental illnesses can almost take away from the people who do severely struggle with them. I think it can be harmful to normalize certain mental health challenges to the point where they’re being watered down. I understand everything is a spectrum, but someone who can function on a daily basis and live a perfectly normal life should not be spearheading the awareness campaign for a mental illness. Disclaimer: I do understand and appreciate how someone successful who also struggles with a certain disorder can be an inspiration to others. It certainly is important to see someone like yourself come out on top while battling the same fight. It just gets concerning when conversations around mental health try to glamorize them and turn their backs on those at the far end of the spectrum who struggle critically. In the context of this topic, it makes me think of the phrase, “My culture is not your costume.” Some people fight desperately every single day to simply make it through the day, meanwhile your favorite influencer just made a video on their struggle with depression and the comments are full of “you’re so brave” and “thank you for bringing awareness to this.” At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their own experience and should be validated for it. It’s also important for people with a platform to speak on these topics. It just shouldn’t be made out to seem like “If I can do it, so can you.” It’s rarely that simple. Rant over.

 

Although the skepticism of social media is warranted, there’s always a silver lining, even if it’s a sliver. When we notice things about ourselves that seem wrong or off, it’s important to identify and address them rather than ignoring them. But we’re not going to make a doctor’s appointment or rush to an ER over every little symptom, so sometimes social media can be good for giving you an idea of what could be happening so if your symptoms progress, you can go to the doctor with potentially a way to describe what you’re experiencing. Like the previous example, the doctor won’t take your word as fact, write your a prescription and call it a day (at least not a good doctor). They’re going to run tests, take scans, or whatever they need to do to properly diagnose you if needed.

 

When it comes to health anxiety, the conversation is twofold. On one hand, social media and sites like WebMD can certainly exacerbate health anxiety because people search up one symptom and are immediately told it could be cancer. It seems like the worst case scenarios are usually the most suggested (gotta love America). Those results then throw you in a spiral of Google searches of “am I dying?” and “how to remove weird mole at home.” On the other hand, it’s possible that social media could help ease someone’s health anxiety if they’re given good news. I can’t even tell you how many times a day I spontaneously Google random symptoms just to find nothing helpful and then forget about it the next day. Our bodies are strange and do weird things that don’t always require an explanation. That could either be very comforting or not at all. 

 

All of this to say, mental illness should continue to be destigmatized and talked about. Social media does a good job at that and can be a useful resource when used appropriately and cautiously. But having a mental health disorder is more than a label — it’s about receiving proper treatment, finding support and working through challenges. It’s not glamorous or quirky and it should be taken seriously when it comes to diagnosis. 

 

If you feel like you may be experiencing something you found on TikTok, that’s perfectly fine, but go see a doctor to confirm before you jump to any conclusions. At the end of the day, everyone struggles and feels things differently; neither side of the spectrum should aim to take away from the other. Mental health is serious, despite what you may see on social media. We should work toward destigmatizing and making others feel supported, not making a fan club out of it. 

About Mallory Pace

Friends and family knew Mallory Pace would become a writer when she wrote and illustrated a hand-made children’s book in the third grade for her class to read. It didn’t indicate a prodigy-in-the-making, but all the elements of a good storyline were there, waiting to be improved. Now, Mallory is about to graduate from the University of North Florida with a multimedia journalism degree and minors in political science and marketing, with which she hopes to continue storytelling and exploring avenues of multimedia journalism. In Mallory's free time, you’ll either find her taking her cat, Peter, on a walk via stroller, or galavanting around the beaches.