Self-diagnosis on social media is harmful to perceptions of mental health – The Oberlin Review

As you aimlessly scroll through social media, a video pops up that says, “5 Signs You Have ADHD.” Rapid loss of focus, loss of time, mood swings, difficulty listening, excessive talkativeness, losing things easily, or disorganization—any a sign seems to point to you and what you have been struggling with. You may feel like you are finally understood and seen. Your struggle has this new name, and you feel like you’ve finally found the solution—the solution to what you’ve been feeling for so long. Your feelings finally belong somewhere.

Videos like these have flooded social media platforms. I bet you’ve seen a couple. Topics of discussion range from anxiety, personality and mood disorders to disabilities such as autism and ADHD. The videos usually consist of explaining the “signs” that someone may have a certain condition, but often these so-called “signs” consist of behaviors that anyone can experience. People take this information, relate to it, and begin to believe they have the condition they hear about. The worrying trend of people self-diagnosing themselves seems to have started in the last few years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of many people. This shared experience opened up more discussion about mental health, especially on social media, and efforts to destigmatize mental health struggles increased. According to a report by the World Health Organization, there was a 25% increase in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression in the first year of the pandemic. When people were left alone, they began to notice things about themselves that weren’t obvious before. People were forced to look at their own behavior, patterns, thoughts, and interactions with others in a way they hadn’t before. As one of the only methods of communication available at the time, social media became a tool for people to feel noticed and recognized. Mental health became a central focus, and online mental health communities have since been built to open up conversations for people struggling and offer them a place to share their experiences.

The mental health destigmatization movement was created to help those who have struggled alone with their mental illness to feel seen. After centuries of mental illness being seen as something “wrong” with someone, people are finally feeling accepted despite their struggles. However, we may have reached the point where this phenomenon is doing more harm than good. There is what almost seems like a romanticization of mental illness – people have started to just throw around delicate terms and diagnoses as if they are character traits that you can easily assign to yourself. The thing is, we’re not dealing with simple character traits. We are dealing with intense human struggles that have been left in the dark for too long.

There has been a drastic change in the way mental illness is portrayed on social media. We stopped sharing personal experiences to help build a human connection where someone feels less alone. People have now taken it upon themselves to act as professionals and offer easy answers to people’s complex questions about mental health and disability, with some even attempting to provide diagnoses. Most of the mental illness videos you see on social media are not created by professional psychologists. There are some psychologists who offer information about various mental illnesses online, but what they offer is education on the subject, not a diagnosis. There is a very big difference between feeling anxious or depressed and being clinically diagnosed with anxiety or depression. As any psychologist would tell you, this distinction is very important, but in the world of social media, these lines are blurred. It’s possible that the destigmatization of mental illness has been hijacked by social media, and we’ve in turn been tricked into making those struggling with a clinical diagnosis feel invisible again—just in a different way.

You don’t have to have a clinical diagnosis or a severe mental disorder to know that when you’re in so much pain, you long for the world to tell you that they see you. In the past, this need was crushed because you were met with the burden of a world that said, “Keep your mental illness hidden.” While it is true that in today’s society that voice has somewhat dissipated, what we need to understand is that we have not gone from “hide it” to “I see you.” Instead, the source of the sense of invisibility has changed from feeling muted to feeling minimized, as if one is in a crowd where everyone is chanting “welcome to the club.”

This does not mean that you are not in pain if you have been feeling anxious or depressed. We as humans experience these feelings and it is very difficult to deal with them. This is not about minimizing pain; it’s about how social media tempts us and invites us to express that pain in a way that equates it with a different kind of pain, thus minimizing the pain of those who constantly struggle with mental disorders.

For all students reading this, we have an important role to play. As young adults who have grown up with social media, we sit in the eye of this great storm. We discover so much of ourselves amidst a tremendous amount of academic and social pressure. In one way or another, we all deal with our own important struggles, but we’re tempted not to put those struggles in order to feel noticed. Social media has taught us all to crave the limelight, but that’s not the world we want. As those most affected by this phenomenon, we are on the front lines. We have the chance to reframe our approach to each other’s struggles and help everyone feel seen without blurring the lines between self-diagnosis and clinical diagnosis in order to feel valid. We can create a world where instead of competing to be noticed, we can be the ones making sure each other “sees you”.

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