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The Dangers of TikTok Self-Diagnoses

Since its release in 2016, popular social media app TikTok has gained the love and attention of people around the world.

Currently boasting 1.677 billion users, the platform has become a home for all different kinds of interests such as BookTok (users sharing videos about books), FoodTok (users sharing videos about cooking), and CleanTok (users sharing videos about cleaning).

But one of the most interesting—and perhaps, questionable—communities that has popped up on TikTok is found through the mental health hashtag.

According to Mental Health America, “In 2019-2020, 20.78% of adults were experiencing a mental illness. That is equivalent to over 50 million Americans.” Furthermore, 28.2% of these individuals weren’t able to receive treatment for their conditions.

With the feeling of shame many individuals experience related to mental disorders, it’s no wonder that so many people have turned to social media for validation. Through TikTok, users are able to find others who understand what it feels like to experience a mental illness.

But the mental health community on TikTok isn’t always a positive force. Regan Olsson from Banner Health acknowledged: “[a]t best, TikTok videos have brought greater awareness of disorders like ADHD, Tourette’s and autism.

“At worst, these videos have brought with them a proliferation of misinformation that has led many to believe they have a condition or disorder when they may not.”

With clickbait-esque videos containing captions such as “5 signs you’re probably autistic,” it’s easy for TikTok users to forget that internet information isn’t always accurate.

Dr. Inna Kanevsky, a psychology professor at San Diego Mesa College, took to TikTok a few years ago in order to combat misinformation surrounding mental health.

In one video posted a few weeks ago, Dr. Kanevsky made a joke about how if she were a Barbie doll, she would be a ‘Weird Professor Barbie’ with ADHD and messy bookshelves, among other traits. In response, one TikTok user commented ‘AuDHD, no?’ (Au as a reference to autism) which has since been deleted.

But Dr. Kanevsky made a video in response to the comment in which she mentioned that she had been diagnosed with ADHD in order to receive treatment, but not with Autism because she did not believe a formal diagnosis was needed for her symptoms.

She explained the following:

“Yes, I think so […] But, you see, I have my identity wrapped around other things. I can see that yours is wrapped around this diagnosis […] That diagnosis is a label. People seek it out for various reasons when they need it. I don’t need it […] And by the way, diagnosing people of whom you’ve just seen one video is gross. Don’t do that.”

Dr. Kanevsky’s response raises a question: what is the point of self-diagnosing through TikTok? Is it simply for validation? To feel part of a community? To feel unique?

How many of those self-diagnosing through TikTok are searching for professional help to treat their newfound mental illness?

According to a survey conducted by The Intake:

  • 1 in 4 people have self-diagnosed based on social media information.
  • 43% of those who self-diagnosed followed up with a medical professional about a disease or illness they discovered on social media.
  • 82% of those who visited a doctor after social media self-diagnosing had their diagnosis confirmed.

So how can individuals accurately determine whether they have a mental illness or not? Mayo Clinic suggests the following routes:

  • A physical exam
  • Lab tests
  • A psychological evaluation

Scrolling through the mental health hashtag on TikTok is not a suggested form of diagnosis.

This isn’t to say that TikTok videos related to mental health and disorders are always harmful. When posted by factual, well-researched individuals—or, at least, individuals who make it clear that their experiences are not always universal for someone who has the same disorder—mental health videos can help spread awareness and validation.

But the fact remains that TikTok content creators don’t know the unique and complicated physical and mental health backgrounds of each user that interacts with their videos. Therefore, blanket statement diagnoses from internet strangers should not be blindly trusted.

For information about professional mental health diagnoses, visit the following sites:

Mind (United Kingdom)

With Therapy (United States)

Mental Health America (United States)

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