How Self Diagnosing Mental Illness Can Be Harmful

With the internet and social media just a click away, it seems that everyone has become avid researchers who can solve just about anything in a matter of moments. Got a cough? Google it. Stubbed your toe, and it’s turning purple? The Facebook community will know what to do. Feeling a little off mentally? Well, you get the picture. Before you know it, you’ve gone down a rabbit hole and convinced yourself you’ve got some rare condition. So, why is self-diagnosing mental illness problematic? Self diagnosing mental illnesses can be more dangerous than you think. Read on to discover the risks of self diagnosing, how to avoid these tempting mental and social media traps, and what to do instead.

Self Diagnosing Mental Illness: Why Not?

With the world’s knowledge at our fingertips and experts (and not-so-experts) giving their thoughts and opinions freely on every social media platform, information on mental health has never been so prevalent.

Not all information is created equal. (Image Source: Shutterstock)

With the world’s knowledge at our fingertips and experts (and not-so-experts) giving their thoughts and opinions freely on every social media platform, information on mental health has never been so prevalent. However, not all information is created equal. There has been an alarming influx of influencers touting symptoms of mental illness or trauma as blanket evidence of these conditions and how they apply to you. You’ve probably stumbled upon these videos on TikTok or Instagram, but are they really that influential? Think about this: Maybe you’ve been feeling down lately, and you stumble upon an article or TikTok about depression that describes your symptoms perfectly. Struggling with motivation and organization? The next thing you know, you’re scrolling through Instagram reels about ADHD. Before you know it, you’ve convinced yourself that you have a mental disorder and begin diving head-first into the mental health rabbit hole. You begin by scrolling through social media videos, forums, and then onto community groups to find solace in your newfound self diagnosis. While it’s completely natural to seek answers when you’re struggling emotionally, self diagnosing can actually be very harmful and even dangerous.

Misdiagnosis is a Real Risk

First off, unless you’re a qualified medical professional, the chances of you accurately diagnosing yourself are slim. Mental illnesses often have overlapping symptoms, and it’s easy to mistake one condition for another. For instance, both depression and anxiety (or even just a stressful period in your life) can result in feelings of irritability and difficulty sleeping. Similarly, someone with ADHD might experience impulsivity, but so can someone with bipolar disorder during a manic phase. Without professional training, it’s easy to misinterpret or misunderstand the nuances.

Is A Misdiagnosis Considered Medical Malpractice? – Grossman Roth Yaffa Cohen

By locking onto one specific diagnosis, there’s a risk of missing another condition. For instance, what you think might be anxiety could actually be symptoms of a thyroid disorder. Misdiagnosis could lead you to adopt coping strategies or treatments that aren’t effective or are even harmful, wasting time and energy that could be better spent on professional treatment that actually works.

Confirmation Bias and Downplaying (or Amplifying) Symptoms

When we self-diagnose, there’s a tendency either to downplay or amplify what we’re experiencing. Some people, after reading a list of symptoms, might think, “Well, I don’t have ALL these symptoms, so I’m probably just overreacting.” This mindset could prevent you from seeking the help you need. Conversely, some might read into every little feeling and behavior, convinced they meet all criteria for a certain disorder. This can create a sort of confirmation bias, where you start to notice only the symptoms that confirm your self-diagnosis while ignoring signs that may point to a different issue or no issue at all. You know how when you decide you like a certain type of car, and suddenly you see it everywhere? That’s confirmation bias. If you believe you might have a specific mental illness, you might inadvertently emphasize symptoms that align with that belief while disregarding others. This can lead you to misdiagnosis, ineffective treatment, and even the adoption of harmful behaviors and coping mechanisms.

Mistaking Normal Stress Responses for Mental Illness

Life is tough. Everyone, at some point, feels down, stressed, anxious, or scattered. These feelings are natural reactions to life’s many challenges. Self-diagnosing might lead you to confuse a normal stress response with a chronic mental health condition. It’s essential to differentiate between the two. Plus, misdiagnosing yourself can take an emotional toll. You might label yourself unnecessarily, leading to feelings of hopelessness or despair. It can also prevent you from finding more effective and less complicated solutions to your non-chronic symptoms.

Shot of stressed business woman working from home on laptop

Self-diagnosing might lead you to confuse normal stress. (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Social Stigma and Stereotyping

Let’s face it, there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health. Self-diagnosing can perpetuate this problem by fostering misunderstandings about what mental illness really is and how it should be treated. Misusing clinical terms can dilute their meaning and impact. For example, labeling someone you know who may be acting selfishly or in a way you don’t appreciate as a “narcissist” trivializes the word and socially confuses the clinical understanding of the complexities of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These casual uses of clinical terms actually harm those who are struggling with disorders and mental illness. It can make it more difficult for those struggling, their family members, and their friends to get reliable information on these disorders. Being selfish or rude doesn’t make someone a narcissist, just like enjoying a clean home doesn’t make you OCD.

Self Diagnosis is Not a Substitute for Professional Help

One of the biggest pitfalls of self-diagnosis is that it can make you feel as though you’ve already done something about your issue. The truth is, even if your self-diagnosis is accurate (and that’s a big if), managing mental illness often involves much more than just slapping a label on it. Treatment may involve medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, or other forms of intervention that only a healthcare provider can properly recommend and oversee.

Internet vs. Reality

While the internet and social media are fantastic tools for learning, it can’t replace the nuanced diagnosis a qualified medical professional can provide. Online mental health quizzes, articles, or even videos from those in the mental health profession are not designed to capture the complexities of individual experience. Even websites and resources from reputable organizations can’t diagnose you; they always include disclaimers advising you to consult a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis.

The Ripple Effect

Believe it or not, your self-diagnosis can also impact those around you. Family and friends, once told about your self-determined condition, may also adopt a misguided understanding of the illness in question, which could perpetuate myths and stigmas. Or, concerned loved ones might press you to seek professional help, causing tension when you resist, convinced you’ve already figured things out yourself.

Don’t Diagnose, Consult Instead

So, what should you do if you think you might have a mental health condition? Here is a helpful list of what to do if you’re concerned (or even just curious) about the state of your mental health.

Seek Professional Advice: A mental health professional—be it a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist—is trained to assess, diagnose, and provide appropriate treatment recommendations.

Keep an Open Mind: Be open to the possibility that what you’re experiencing might differ from your initial assumptions.

Avoid Over-Reliance on Online Tests or Videos: While some online tests or others’ experiences can provide insights, they aren’t definitive. These should be used as a starting point, not a final diagnosis.

Talk About it: Whether with friends, family, or support groups, talking can be therapeutic. It can also provide perspectives you might not have considered.

Prioritize Self-Care: Even before a formal diagnosis, taking steps to care for your mental health is crucial. This includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, mindfulness practices, and avoiding stimulants and excessive alcohol.

Final Thoughts

Remember, self-awareness is important and commendable. It’s the first step toward understanding yourself, accepting accountability, and seeking help. But diagnosing mental illness or personality disorders requires a depth of understanding and expertise that most of us don’t have. Just as you wouldn’t self-diagnose a physical condition like diabetes or heart disease, mental health deserves the same level of care and expertise. Not to mention, having a professional there to rely on takes a lot of stress off your mental load and can actually help you recover and heal faster—both mentally and physically.

So next time you’re tempted to jump down the online diagnosis rabbit hole, pause, put down your phone, breathe, and consider reaching out for professional guidance. Professional care is the best form of mental self-care.