How to Correctly Approach Self-Diagnosing Mental Health

Social media has been on fire lately following a recent interview of social justice advocate and actress Amanda Seales’ appearance on Shannon Sharpe’s show Club Shay Shay. One of the highly-debated topics – Seales’ supposed self-diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. How to correctly approach self-diagnosing mental health conditions (or neurological conditions) has come up in my work as a therapist so now is a good time to offer some therapist insights on the matter.

What is Self-Diagnosing Mental Health Conditions?

Have you ever logged on to WebMD to find an answer to your illness? If so, you’ve engaged in (assisted) self-diagnosis. Self-diagnosis is the act of seeking out information to better understand your symptoms, and if a condition fits. Most of us engage in self-diagnosing in the hopes of gaining access to the care necessary to treat or cure what ails us.

In mental health, this often means looking up material online to understand if your worries are a result of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or if your ongoing low mood irritability could be Major Depressive Disorder.

Recently, two conditions have gained a lot of interest online: Autism and ADHD. This was punctuated recently by Seales’ high-profile interview with Shannon Sharpe in which she disclosed a diagnosis of autism. While it seems unclear how she has communicated about her diagnosis over time (whether she always said it was self-diagnosed or not), ultimately it seems that Seales’ opted for self-diagnosis instead of professional consultation. In that, it seems she found some answers for herself and can now make sense of some things that have happened in her life.

In my experience as a mental health professional, it’s relatively common for new clients to arrive to the therapy with some idea of what might be going on with their mental health. My goal in the room is to make sure that I fully understand their perspective and help them find what fits best so we can work together to address their concerns fully.

Many providers frown upon the idea of self-diagnosis. After all, if everyone can just diagnose themselves then why have this specialized training and education? While I certainly would have liked to pay less for my education and training, I don’t see self-diagnosis as a huge threat to the profession of therapy. Mostly because self-diagnosis is not new, and because collaborative treatment planning is often key to a client’s success in treatment.

Why People Self-Diagnose

Self-diagnosis has increased in mainstream popularity lately due to increased healthcare costs. Given the state of the economy, it’s harder than ever for people to find good care and be able to afford it. Many turn to social media for insight into conditions like ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to see if the content mirrors their lived experience. Self-diagnosis is easily accessible and cost-effective.

In addition, self-diagnosis has always been a part of the medical system. This is especially true for marginalized and oppressed groups of people (women, people of color, disabled folks, etc.) who have had to self-advocate when arrogant providers don’t readily acknowledge their concerns or provide comprehensive care. Self-diagnosing and home treatments are often born out of necessity, rather than ignorance and avoidance as many people would suggest. It’s not to mention that self-diagnosis and community centered healing practices have existed as long as people have.

With a better, more care-centered, cost-effective health care system it’s likely the need for self-diagnosis would drop considerably. People would find healthcare providers they trust, get thoughtful care and treatment, and have a solid plan to address their concerns.

The Challenges to Self-Diagnosing Mental Health Conditions

One of the biggest challenges to self-diagnosis, especially from information gained on social media, is the validity of the information. That is, is the information accurate, true, and a full representation of the actual condition and symptoms? This is rarely the case with any information online, even from trusted experts.

Why? Because social media is not comprehensive and full of nuance. Content online is for quick engagement, hot-takes and pithy take-aways. You’re meant to gain something from watching a minute or less of video and go on about your day. Then your algorithm continues to show you similar information, from similar creators, the more time you spend with the material. This can often exacerbate the principle of confirmation bias, or reinforcing information to support your preexisting expectations. This often means that information that challenges your expectations is filtered out without you even realizing it.

When it comes to diagnosis, this means that you will see material that fits what you’ve already engaged with even if it’s not the most accurate material for you to be consuming. It’s why the idea of differential diagnosis is a part of professional training. Mental health professionals are trained to not only look at what symptoms and conditions fit, but also the ones that could be ruled out and discredited altogether.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is now in its 5th edition (DSM-5-TR). The DSM is the text that mental health providers refer to when making clinical assessments for clients. It covers the most up to date, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information on mental health conditions and symptoms. It is the text used to examine the symptomatology of mental illness.

And with the present system of diagnostic criteria, diagnosis is a complicated and imperfect, science.

A note on the DSM and Diagnostic Criteria

Diagnosis is a complicated idea in the field of mental health. On one hand, diagnosis of a condition is required for insurance to cover therapy sessions, yet many providers would prefer to postpone diagnosis for some time (or altogether, in certain cases). The argument against diagnosis is complex.

First, there is the political, patriarchal, and racist history of diagnosis of mental health conditions. Like virtually every modern model, psychology certainly has roots in these isms. Therefore, so does the criteria of many mental health conditions. While the field has progressed in this area over time, there is still concern that our category-based model isn’t as accurate as it could be.

I have my own concerns about it, and my opinion about it is how I feel about much of the research out there about mental health disorders and treatment; it’s the best of what we have right now. We should approach diagnosis with caution and flexibility. Providers should approach diagnosis keeping in mind these influences of the history of the profession. They should also consider the ongoing politics and capitalism at play related to healthcare. Again, diagnosis is imperfect.

However, many people progress by finding a competent mental health provider, a good diagnosis, and the treatment that helps them live healthier lives. It’s hard to treat a condition when you don’t have the language or tools to speak about what bothers you and create a plan to treat it.

Conclusion

If you don’t have the resources or access to professional mental health care, then self-diagnosis can be a helpful tool in addressing your concerns. However, it’s important to be cautious when approaching self-diagnosis because diagnosis is a complicated process. It’s not uncommon for those seeking professional support to have a change in diagnosis over time as new information becomes available. Ultimately, you may find it helpful to consult with literature written by trained professionals, or ultimately meet with one yourself, to make sure you’re on a helpful path. Many resources exist to help increase access among those with limited resources. Check community resources in-person and online to get the support you need.

Be careful about what you research and consume online. Have conversations with people on, and off, line. Check your expectations and consider multiples sources of information when approaching self-diagnosis. Ultimately, this will help you correctly approach self-diagnosing mental health conditions.


If you’d like to speak with a member of the Viva team about a potential mental health concern, we’re happy to help. Just click the link below to submit an inquiry and someone will be in touch with you as soon as possible.

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