Self-Diagnosing Mental Illness: You Can't Always Trust Tik Tok

Katy Kandaris, LPC
11/17/2022

Social media has been an incredible development for human connectivity. It has evolved to not just keep you in touch with family and friends, but to reach audiences all across the world. Posts on TikTok and, oftentimes, Instagram, are targeted to a broad group of people as opposed to only those in your immediate circle.

These posts range in anything from humorous skits, to fun things to do in your area, to advice on and signs of mental disorders. That last one has opened up conversations surrounding mental health that dispel many myths and discredit many stigmas. 

Some people see videos about anxiety, ADHD, Autism, or other conditions, believe they observe comparable behaviors in themselves, and then talk to their doctor for a medical diagnosis. 

However, social media has led to a lot of self-diagnosed mental illnesses, leading people to declare that they have a disorder without any medical confirmation. This can be ill-advised at best, but it can actually be harmful, if not dangerous to the person diagnosing themselves.    

How People Self-Diagnose From the Internet

According to the Pew Research Center, over one third of adults in the US go to the internet for health questions or triage. Of that third, 35% never visited a doctor to get a professional opinion.

This is a study from 2013, when some symptom checking-sites were just coming out. At the time, there was a common joke that looking up some benign, mild symptoms would give results that a person had a dire, fatal disease.

Unfortunately, things haven’t changed a whole lot in terms of mental health symptom-checking since then. Nowadays, social media content creators with no medical training are describing what certain mental health or behavior disorders look like. The result is that the people who follow them might believe they have these symptoms (when they don’t), or, in an even more damaging twist, might begin displaying them as a result of the suggestion that they could.

Cyberchondria

Sometimes these content creators that talk about mental and behavioral health are doctors and therapists. But, more often than not, they are ordinary people who say they have these disorders and are sharing their experiences. Many times, their experiences are valid and backed by a medical diagnosis.

Yet, for a lot of young people, witnessing these creators put their disorders on display results in health anxiety, or hypochondria. This new wave of health anxiety as a direct result of the internet has given birth to a new term: cyberchondria.

It’s not much of a secret that social media has had an overall negative impact on young people’s mental health. Some of this is due to social pressures. Some of the rising numbers are from people willing to be more open about what they are going through. 

One study found that those with health anxiety may not believe their doctors when they tell them that their self-diagnosis is incorrect.

Health anxiety and cyberchondria are directly and positively related. Those that consume internet content and subscribe to what a lot of influencers are saying about health have more anxiety about their own health, and are more prone to self diagnoses.

Munchausen’s By Internet

Munchausen’s Syndrome is lying about a medical issue for treatment or attention. People with this syndrome go to great lengths to ‘be sick.’ Munchausen’s by Internet is a relatively new phenomenon.  

Somewhat related to cyberchondria, this syndrome is seen in influencers who act like they have a mental health disorder to receive internet attention, sympathy, or money, in a type of deception known as malingering. 

Those with cyberchondria truly believe something is ‘wrong’ with them, and so do those with Munchausen's. Those who malinger know that they don’t have the ailment they claim to. They might have seen these so-called symptoms online or in a movie, and have tried to replicate them.

Munchausen’s, malingering, and factitious disorder are all behavioral disorders that can be seen on social media. Attention is a currency on the internet, and having a mental or physical disease helps you get it. 

How Self-Diagnosing Can Be Dangerous

Cyberchondria can be unsafe–even harmful. As unverified or inaccurate information continues to become more prevalent on social media platforms, it is increasingly important to have any suspected self-diagnosis confirmed by a medical professional. Following professional guidance can prevent you from mis-treating or even exasperating a condition (or lack thereof) that you may not fully understand. 

You Could Be Missing the Bigger Picture

Many symptoms of mental health disorders overlap with other mental health or even physical health issues. The sudden development of one could even be an indicator of a severe health problem.

People who diagnose themselves with conditions like autism or tourette’s usually end up finding, instead, that they have a form of anxiety after talking to a medical professional. Additionally, many people do not account for the fact that multiple disorders could be present at the same time. If they try to treat one, they may completely miss the other—or could even make it worse.

It Could Lead to Self-Medication

It’s impossible to get the care you need when you don’t have a medical diagnosis. Many at-home remedies alleviate symptoms, but few are suitable for treating the root cause of a disorder long-term.

Other times, these coping strategies simply aren’t enough. Whatever it is you are suffering from may continue to put a strain on your life if it is not addressed properly. This effective approach can result in risky behavior, or even suicide.

Why TikTok Therapy Isn’t Reliable

Social media influencers are very much a part of life, and every aspect of normal human life is becoming more and more visible. For better or worse, this includes mental wellness and neurodivergent behaviors.

The Good

Many accounts on TikTok and other platforms are professional therapists with certifications and training. They may have short pieces of advice to get you through, or encourage you to see a doctor or counselor. 

It’s important to remember that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Perhaps you’ve been experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, but had simply assumed that “that’s just how everyone feels.” Once you’ve recognized symptoms, it’s time to see a medical professional about the next steps for a diagnosis.

The Bad

All too often, influencers claiming to be experts are not. Likewise, those that say they have these disorders do not, and likely have a variation of Munchausen’s syndrome. Thus they do not accurately represent what it is like to have these issues.

It’s easy to equate more followers with more credibility. However, popularity is not the same as trustworthiness. A large following only means they know how to market themselves and cater to the platform’s algorithms to reach more people.

Such influencers may not know what actual symptoms are, and they might recommend useless, or even harmful, at-home remedies. 

Take Social Media With a Grain of Salt

For all the negative impacts of TikTok and Instagram, there are some positive things as well. What’s important is that you understand that what you see on these apps is exaggerated for views and likes. Doctors welcome the more pointed or specific questions that these mental health influencers may inspire, but they don’t welcome self-diagnosis or taking a 60-second internet video as fact. 

If you find yourself tempted to self-diagnose a mental health disorder, schedule a consultation with Inner Balance Counseling today. We recognize both the harm and good that this new visibility of wellness can offer. We aim to help you feel better and heal from whatever is keeping you from the full, healthy life you deserve.

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Katy Kandaris, LPC
Owner & Trauma Therapist

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