The TIK TOK MD?
A discussion of the dangers of self-diagnosis of mental illnesses based on non-legitimised resources on Instagram and Tik-Tok. Chloe Lawson examines the positives and pitfalls of the open and unpoliced online conversations regarding mental health issues and their symptoms.
Image Description: As a MAFA student at Edinburgh Uni, I can study both art practice and the history of art simultaneously. By doing this, I understand both the historical context behind my art-making, as well as exploring ways to diverge from this past. The process behind creating my work is very intuitive. As a result, my art directly reflects my mental state at the time, while also capturing the unconscious emotions I am unaware I am experiencing. My transition into abstract forms of artwork is quite a recent one, but a necessary one, which allows me to fully grasp my feelings and let myself space to create freely. The artwork featured shows the collective consciousness of society, with one sad face lost in a veil of toxic positivity. Yet, regardless of my intentions behind the piece, it invites the viewer to reflect on their state of self and take from it what they need.
Googling your newfound symptoms is nothing new. Convincing yourself you have an obscure and deadly disease when in reality you are suffering from a minor headache is a mistake many of us have undoubtedly made. This is an experience that I’m sure occurred even more regularly in the atmosphere of panic fostered by the global pandemic when health paranoia was rampant. This phenomenon is no longer restricted to physical ailments. A trend I have noticed when scrolling through Tik-Tok or Instagram is the prevalence of posts and videos raising awareness about the symptoms of mental illnesses and disorders. Certainly, the increased awareness of mental health issues generates more empathy and understanding for those with illnesses that cannot be seen. Additionally, people who are struggling can understand themselves better and not feel so isolated in their personal battle. What’s more, having recognised symptoms in themselves, may also lead to more people seeking diagnoses and the treatment they need. On a wider societal level, it means mental health problems are not dismissed as less important than physical problems and efforts are made to understand them and help.
Across Instagram and TikTok, there are many popular pages focused on supporting those wrestling with different mental illnesses. One such example, DLC anxiety (@dlcanxiety), has 1.1 million followers worldwide and is an invaluable source of information and support. They provide informative lists of different symptoms or explore particular symptoms in more detail which can help people better understand their own anxiety and that of their loved ones. Alongside these are more personal pages that share an individual’s story and experience with particular disorders. An account called @mollys_adhd_mayhem has 34.1 thousand followers and counting. She shares colourful infographics about different aspects of having Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder as she experiences it. Additionally, there are countless social media accounts that are very open about their various experiences with mental illness which is reflective of the growing openness about mental health.
On TikTok in particular, videos describing the symptoms of various ailments can appear out of context on your ‘For You’ page. One thing that struck me recently is the almost non-consensual nature of this trend in contrast to Dr Google. The algorithm of TikTok means that unlike the old, deliberate action of googling your symptoms, various symptoms are abruptly presented to you over and over again and it is inevitable that some people may recognise aspects of their own behaviour in these videos. It is also possible that some people may mistakenly diagnose themselves with something they do not have, as they treat these posts with the same authority as a mental health professional. It may be that they are struggling with one thing that they label as another, on the basis of someone on the internet. Even before TikTok’s hay-day, articles discussing online self-diagnosis have been written discussing the hazards. One, appearing in Dazed in 2018 discussing the problems with self-diagnosing anxiety disorder without seeking a medical opinion. Anxiety is a common and natural reaction to some situations, we all feel anxious at some point in our lives. So while increased conversation about Anxiety Disorder online can lead to more understanding for those suffering from it, the accessibility of information could lead to incorrect self-diagnosis.
This phenomenon can vary in its severity and impact and largely depends on what the particular viewer does with the new information. For example, I personally struggle with Anxiety and came across a video discussing symptoms of Bipolar Disorder. I briefly convinced myself that I had this as they described some of the things that I had recently experienced as a consequence of my Anxiety. I was able to take a step back and realise that I don’t have it, but it would be foolish to assume that everyone does this, especially if the algorithm decides to bombard a person with similar videos. It is true that there are many overlaps in symptoms between particular illnesses, which is another reason that these videos can be misleading and why it is vital to seek advice from a professional. An erroneous self-assessment could result in the pursuit of ineffective or ill-fitting treatment, which ultimately can be more damaging. In some cases, physical illnesses or diseases are closely related to psychological symptoms. Jumping to the conclusion that what you are suffering from is purely a mental health issue can overlook incredibly serious complaints such as brain tumours, which can cause behavioural changes. Granted, this is a worst-case scenario, but it is an example of when self-diagnosis can be more dangerous than it is helpful.
Moreover, incorrect self-diagnosis can be damaging for those who really do have a particular disorder, because it undermines what they really go through. For example, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder- which is already regularly undermined by people who prefer their desk to be tidy claiming they are “so OCD”. If you are misdiagnosing yourself with it in a similar way, you are not encountering the sometimes harrowing obsessive thoughts that come with OCD. This means that you aren’t really aware of what it can be like to live with the disorder and are belittling the entire experience to a simple preference for tidiness.
Lists of symptoms in posts or videos are one thing, but sometimes I will come across a video describing only one symptom, without any real context or acknowledgement of potentially more major symptoms. An example that I recently came across was a video that demonstrated a particular way of adding two simple numbers together. It was an explanation of how some people’s brains approach that task. It was something I recognised in myself and had always assumed that was what everyone did. In the end, the woman in the video stated that this was how people with ADHD counted. Firstly, I don’t know if this woman is correct or qualified on this matter. Secondly, I know with some certainty that I don’t have ADHD. This video appeared isolated on my feed, in that there were no other videos about more specific and common ADHD symptoms. Singling out traits like this and throwing them out onto the internet is foolish for several reasons. Highlighting this trait as a recognisable characteristic of ADHD individuals without also adding that there are also more commonplace and significant traits has the danger of implying that this way of approaching numbers means you definitely have ADHD. I would hope that most people would see a video such as this and understand that having one symptom does not equal a diagnosis, but if you spend lots of time on TikTok it is the nature of the algorithm that a small suspicion based on one video will be confirmed by similar videos on your feed. However, when a post appears, at first glance there is no way of knowing how qualified (or not) the creator is and therefore what authority they have made these judgements. They quite literally could be anyone. It could be suggested that TikTok could include some option for a disclaimer when someone posts this kind of content, or be more thorough in their monitoring of the kind of content that is being shared- they’ve removed much less ‘dangerous’ things as I’m sure many of us are aware.
ADHD and other mental health disorders must be diagnosed by a professional. However, here we come across another problem that deserves its own separate discussion; the cost of getting a diagnosis can be extremely high, meaning many remain untreated. In this instance, the fact that Instagram and TikTok are free means that they are great places to find support from people in similar positions. It is, of course, good that there is a space for discussion about mental health. However, the unregulated nature and sheer size of the internet mean that it cannot be used as a substitute for professional advice, in the same way, that Google is not a legitimate source of diagnosis for physical disease. While it is great that certain more specific or niche symptoms are being recognised so that people no longer dismiss them, it is also important to take this information with a pinch of salt. Otherwise, we could end up hampering the cause for those we are seeking to help.