Dr. TikTok: The Role of Social Media in Self-Diagnosing Mental Illness

Morgan Lasley, PsyD

If talking about the importance of mental health is becoming less taboo and more normalized, then wouldn’t it make sense to have mental health topics available for the masses via social media for easy reference? Well, it turns out that it’s not quite that simple. In fact, a tremendous number of people have begun to identify with TikTok “celebrities” and social media influencers as they discuss their own experiences with symptoms and diagnoses of mental health disorders…to the point of self-diagnosing mental health disorders (think new-age WebMd, but for mental health).

A recent article on Psychology Today’s website indicated that, “diagnoses including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, and dissociative identity disorder have become highly popular on Instagram and TikTok.” Additionally, it was noted that an “emergence in the identification of the not-yet-DSM-recognized high-functioning anxiety disorder” has also been tied to social media posts.

Diagnoses for mental health disorders are based on a number of criteria and factors, several of which occur on a continuum (i.e., mild to severe presentations). Although many people experience symptoms of a mental health disorder at one point or another during their lifespan, it is less common to actually meet the diagnostic cutoff for a disorder. That is, you may experience various symptoms in response to major events, but if you are not experiencing clinically significant impairment on a daily basis, you may not meet the criteria for a mental health disorder.

Multiple sources have started to acknowledge their concerns related to the observed increase in self-diagnosing of mental health issues, including Fortune Magazine, in which an article was run titled “Munchausen by Internet’ and the dangers of self-diagnosing mental health issues on TikTok.” ADDitude Magazine’s “TikTok is My Therapist: The Dangers and Promise of Viral #MentalHealth Videos” noted similar concerns, specifically in regards to the #ADHD videos on TikTok and the (as of April 7th, 2021) 2.4 billion views.

While there’s no evidence of a direct cause and effect relationship, and there are surely instances in which one may recognize similarities that later lead to a diagnosis given by a professional, it is important to remember that a TikTok video or Instagram post is not a replacement for evidence-based diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing:Washington, DC.

Mellor, S. (2021, September 4). The dangers of self-diagnosing mental health issues on Tiktok. Fortune. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://fortune.com/2021/09/04/tiktok-mental-

health-self-diagnose-videos/.

Slay, B.-A. (2021, August 13). Why “TikTok diagnoses” are on the rise. Psychology Today. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-culture/202108/why-tiktok-diagnoses-are-the-rise.

Williams, C. (2021, April 7). TikTok is my therapist: The dangers and promise of viral #mentalhealth videos. ADDitude. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://www.additudemag.com/tiktok-adhd-videos-self-diagnosis-support/.

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