Is Self-Diagnosis Legitimate?

Everyone knows the old joke about how you shouldn’t type “runny nose” into WebMD because it’ll tell you that you have cancer. And, strictly speaking, there’s a lot of truth in that. A simple Google search is not going to be able to give you an accurate diagnosis. It’s a precise study. The same goes for mental illness.

There has been a huge wave in recent years of teenagers and young adults self-diagnosing themselves with a mental illness. These range from depression, to an anxiety disorder, to borderline personality disorder. Now, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with self-diagnosis. The question comes in the legitimacy and the level of seriousness with which it is taken by others. Many refuse to take it seriously. Even I have reservations. I believe these people very probably do have some mental illness or another and they could even be right with which one,  but I have to say I understand why many outright refuse to consider self-diagnosis legitimate.

On the one hand, it is good to see so many young people attempt to self-diagnose because it shows that they are taking their mental state seriously. This is, in my opinion, so much healthier than trying to bury your emotions and ignore anything that’s wrong. However, self-diagnosis often misses the whole point of a diagnosis, which is to then be treated for that diagnosis. The number one defense to this is that not everyone has access to psychiatric care. And that is perfectly legitimate and, unfortunately, true. Thousands of people are unable to seek treatment for their mental health for a whole slew of reasons (lack of money or insurance, reluctant parents, etc.). And I feel for those people, but my question then becomes: how does this diagnosis help you if you are still not getting treatment? The diagnosis in itself won’t help you. Only actual treatment will. Perhaps it offers a sense of comfort, being able to give a name to what you’re feeling. Or maybe it legitimizes the condition to the person, so they can say they have x rather than an undefined grouping of symptoms. But the diagnosis is still only the first step on the long, winding road to recovery.

And, truthfully, I don’t want to take anything away from people who can’t get professional help. I have been lucky in my life to have parents who always tried to help me and access to mental health care. So I do acknowledge I have a level of privilege here. But again, the diagnosis does no good without treatment to follow it up. Maybe the internet can come in handy here this way. There are likely online communities you can talk to. And talking through your issues is important. It’s only part of the solution, but it is still far better than nothing. But self-diagnosing for the sake of having a diagnosis (that you are unable to get professionally for valid reasons) will not help you. And thus, people will question whether you are genuinely looking for help or are faking to seem quirky (which, unfortunately, a few people have done).

Secondly, diagnosing a mental illness can be difficult for a medical professional, and this is their field of study. Therefore, there is much more room for error from someone who does not have those credentials. I’ll even provide an example from my own experience. When I was ten, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. To my psychiatrist at the time, it seemed to fit the symptoms and behavior I’d been having. I also have direct blood relatives with bipolar (maternal aunt and grandfather), so I suppose it wasn’t such a far stretch. Fast forward ten years and my symptoms are only somewhat better. My current psychiatrist (as I am still seeing him) also stated that he’d never observed me exhibiting any symptoms of mania and opted to take me off the medicine for bipolar and switch to a regular antidepressant and something for my anxiety. I, at long last, started to truly improve in my mental health. It turned out I didn’t have bipolar— I have depression and severe anxiety. I spent ten years of my life with a misdiagnosis, given to me by a psychiatric professional. If they can misdiagnose, it’s even more likely for those of us without their studied knowledge to do so.

There are often also symptoms you may exhibit that you don’t notice, but others do.  This is always taken into account when diagnosing someone. There is much more room for error when you don’t know all your symptoms. There is also the matter of how we perceive ourselves and how that may differ from reality. This is usually displayed in our affect and how we present ourselves. I have thought I seemed confident and charming, but was later told signs of my anxiety and discomfort were all over my face. (This almost prevented me from getting a job, but I would say that story is more for a post about misunderstanding shyness.) We miss so much from our own perspective that it makes self-diagnosis that much more difficult.

And all this is really to say, I don’t care if you self-diagnose nor would I tell you to stop. But, from a scientific and professional standpoint, it will never be considered legitimate. And so, if someone doesn’t take your self-diagnosis seriously, they do have a leg to stand on. It would certainly help if they weren’t dicks about it, but they’re not entirely wrong. And neither are those who self-diagnose. Even if the diagnosis they come up with turns out to be wrong, they still recognized that they were sick. And that’s always the first step, isn’t it?

And, ultimately, the best solution to all of this would be to make mental health care less expensive and more easily accessible. It would be ending the stigma around mental illness. Diagnosing someone is always a tricky affair and so, to those of you that self-diagnose, I say be careful and bare all this in mind. And I wish you well.

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