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Think twice before using social media to self-diagnose mental illness

Think twice before using social media to self-diagnose mental illness
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Social media is full of mental illness advice, but experts say think twice before using it to self-diagnose – here’s why

If you have an undetermined health problem, you see a doctor, who makes a diagnosis. At least that is how it used to be. Nowadays, in the age of social media, self-diagnosis – most notably of mental illnesses – has become common.

On platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, people report how they self-diagnosed, say, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism – which, to be clear, are not mental illnesses. Many describe their symptoms and tell their tale of suffering. Some encourage others to do the same.

Mental health issues have been discussed on social media for quite a while. Sufferers, among them influencers and celebrities with large audiences, upload videos in which they talk about their disorder. And psychologists and psychotherapists post content on their speciality.

Be it ADHD, autism, depression or something else, pages of results will pop up if you search for them online.

Sometimes people don’t realise they may have a mental illness until they see something on social media – but only a specialist can make a definitive diagnosis, experts say. Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes young people do not realise they may have a mental illness until they see something on social media.

German psychotherapist Umut Özdemir says a good thing about social media is that it is helping destigmatise mental illnesses among young people. Photo: Facebook

“You’ve first got to become aware that you do not feel like most other people do, that what you thought was normal isn’t normal at all,” Özdemir says, noting that if you do not suspect anything, you will not make an appointment with a psychotherapist.

Take ADHD, for instance. According to Özdemir, statistics show that the number of ADHD diagnoses is rising. This is not because the disorder has become more prevalent, he says, but because the symptoms have become more widely known.

“People now have an opportunity to inform themselves,” he says.

A specialist must make a definitive diagnosis

A growing number of people come to his therapeutic practice suspecting they have a mental health condition.

Özdemir says that diagnoses of certain conditions are increasing not because they are becoming more prevalent, but because the symptoms are more widely known. Photo: Getty Images

“This shows me they’re asking the right questions and not dismissing the matter,” says Özdemir, while emphasising that a specialist must make a definitive diagnosis, and that self-diagnoses are error-prone.

“For one thing, [self diagnoses] are subjective. In addition, they typically lack professional expertise as regards a differential diagnosis,” he says, referring to the fact that a number of conditions share the same symptoms.

He is critical of people expecting special treatment from others on the basis of a supposition not backed by a professional medical assessment.

“At worst, it could lead to the person resting on their supposition,” he says.

Vet information sources carefully

Dr Burkhard Rodeck, secretary general of the German Society of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (DGKJ), also warns of the dangers of informing yourself about illnesses from information gathered on social media.

Dr Burkhard Rodeck, secretary general of the German Society of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, warns of the dangers of informing yourself about illnesses via social media. Photo: linkedin.com

While social media should not be condemned wholesale as an information source, he says, “there’s often an absence of thorough research, and little distinction is made between fact and opinion”.

Adolescents, in particular, do not have the experience to recognise the distinction, he says, adding that reliable information is available from medical associations and in guidelines on illnesses.

Özdemir also advises people to critically examine information sources.

“Lots of people have simply jumped on the mental health bandwagon,” he says. “Sometimes I have the impression that [ …] everyone’s an ‘expert’ on the psyche.”

Rodeck points to another problem. “We all inform ourselves with a bias,” he says, meaning we read what we want to read.

If you’d like or need therapy, you won’t get around a diagnosis by a professional

Umut Özdemir, a psychotherapist based in Berlin

He adds that “our perception is always subjective”, which is why the involvement of someone who is as neutral and expert as possible is important when it comes to a diagnosis.

Therapist shortage is driving self-diagnosis

Both Rodeck and Özdemir bemoan the dearth of treatment centres, which is also criticised on social media, and which could encourage people to self-diagnose.

With a shortage of mental health practitioners, it may take time to get the treatment required for mental health problems. Photo: Shutterstock

Ultimately of importance after a self-diagnosis, Özdemir points out, is what happens next. “If you’d like or need therapy, you won’t get around a diagnosis by a professional.”

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