The Dangers of Self-Diagnosis

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Are you aware of the dangers of self-diagnosis? 

The internet is really cool. You can learn all about psychology and mental health diagnoses. But you aren’t learning it in any order, which means that you aren’t getting the first lecture in every Psych class, which means it’s more likely that you’ll self-diagnose in a way that might be harmful for you.  

In this post, you’re going to learn all about how trendy psychology may be convincing you that you’re broken and how to prevent yourself from getting sucked along with psych trends.

But first, let me tell you a story.

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When I took Abnormal psych in college, I had a brilliant professor who started off the class by asking us all to take a personalized assessment, kind of like the Inkblot Test.

In order to get a better idea of the personalities of the students in the class, the teacher asked us all to draw a tree, a house, and a person on a single sheet of paper.  

We were told to turn them in and that in the next class period we would all be given a personalized interpretation of what our drawing said about us. So, I did it. I drew my tree, house, and person, I turned it in, and I wondered what the professor would deduce about me.

When we came back to class the next time, we were all handed our tree, house, person in a yellow envelope. And inside was a short paragraph explaining what this drawing said about my childhood and my view of the world. We all took a moment to absorb what we were reading.  

And then the teacher asked us to share what we thought about the comments, but specifically asked us not to share any details from the paragraph we were given.

One by one, the other students expressed amazement at how accurate their description was and how true to their life it was.

Many of them said, “This paragraph describes my home life exactly. Now, I was the obnoxious student who raised my hand and said, “This all just sounds like a horoscope to me.” 

And the teacher got a little annoyed with me, and then he kept going with the other students. 

The students went on for like 20 minutes talking about how accurately the situation described them and how much they were learning from it.  

Some of them got a little emotional as the insights poured in. And then the teacher asked if there was a volunteer who would read their entire interpretation aloud.  

Someone did, and the room went very quiet. The students all glanced at their own “personalized” interpretation and realized that everyone had been given the exact same interpretation.

They’d been duped. None of the interpretations were personal at all. We all just felt like they were.

Is Self-Diagnosing Mental Illness Bad?

We humans have a tendency to read into things and to see ourselves in them.

We see ourselves in vague descriptions.  We empathize with characters in books.  

And when we hear a list of symptoms and a diagnosis, we think, “Uh-oh, that sounds like me.  Maybe I am depressed. Or maybe I did have a disturbed childhood.”  

Now, right now anyone with internet access has the ability to look up a list of symptoms and decide if they fit the criteria for any disorder out there.  

Videos and blogs and webMD articles can all tell you what to look out for with any mental illness.

But what they’re all missing is the first lesson in every psych class, starting with Psych 101. And this seems wrong to me.

Tons of people are essentially making money telling you that you might be broken, but they aren’t taking the time to tell you first that you’re likely to jump to conclusions, and this can make you feel broken.

So, in Psych 101, the teacher almost always starts the course off by telling people, “As you learn about these diagnoses, you’re going to be tempted to see yourself in every one of them.”

We have a tendency to self-diagnose, to label ourselves, and to take suggestions as if they’re fact.

But just because you sympathize with the list of symptoms doesn’t mean you actually have that disorder.

Now, I’ve heard this lecture at the beginning of most of my Psych classes,  so, a couple dozen classes.

But even into grad school, and even with that knowledge, it was easy for me when I took a diagnosing class in grad school to start seeing myself in every diagnosis.

We have a tendency to diagnose ourselves inaccurately because we don’t have the context to see that it’s common to over-diagnose yourself.

And because people are diagnosing themselves online, out of context, without the support of a licensed professional who can walk them through the steps of treatment, then some people just feel hopeless or broken – when in reality they may not even have the disorder, or if they do, there are tons of treatment options.

So, self-diagnosis should help you to reach out to a mental health provider to get the skills and treatment needed.

But when so many people can’t get access to good resources, we get caught up in this huge wave of increasing anxiety and depression rates because people are either over-diagnosing themselves or diagnosing themselves without the context of support and treatment and education.

So, for example, if someone were just to do a quick, cursory search of the internet and be like, “Oh yeah, look, I have depression” and then they were to look very quickly to see, “Oh, what causes depression and what are the treatments?” they might see an overly simplified explanation that depression is a biological illness caused by a chemical imbalance, and the only treatment is medication.

Now, biology does contribute to depression, but it’s way more complicated than that. And medication is not the only treatment option.

Medication is a perfectly fine treatment option, but there’s so many treatment options. So, without the context of, you know, well-rounded professional expertise, pretty hard to get high-quality information.

Is Mental Illness Contagious?

Okay. Another way you can see this is that psychology has had these really interesting trends.

The more a disorder is talked about it, the more people have it. In the nineties, ADHD was starting to be described with more clarity, and more people were talking about it.

More and more medications to treat it were developed and advertised. Then you can see that the rates of ADHD doubled from 1997 to 2017, going from around 5%  to around 10% of kids.

Now, it’s not possible to tell whether this increase represents a change in the number of children who have ADHD or a change in the number of children who were diagnosed. Seeing an increase in diagnosis could be a good thing.

It means that more kids are getting resources at school or medication or other treatments. But it also means that kids who are diagnosed by their parents or neighbor or teacher as being ADD, it might be a false label. It might be something that changes how they see themselves or how others see them.

They might feel broken or defective or incapable of doing schoolwork because that label could be inaccurate.  

Or maybe they do have ADD, and the diagnosis comes without treatment or support.

Now, one of the reasons that we have increasing rates of some of these things is because we do have better resources available: better medication, better diagnostic tools, more early intervention.

So, for example, autism is being talked about more than ever. And pediatricians all across the country are screening two- and three-year-olds for autism.

And if they have symptoms, then they’ll try to enroll them in early intervention programs. Now, 40 years ago, most kids wouldn’t be getting a diagnosis or much support.

So, I’m not saying that these issues aren’t real. It’s just that people also have a tendency to self-diagnose and to diagnose others.

The more we talk about a disorder, the more people self-diagnose. And pharmaceutical companies don’t help with their ads. Many people self-diagnose after watching a medication commercial and then believe that medication is the only treatment option for depression or ADHD.

And like I said, it’s a fine option, but it’s just one of them. It’s just one of many options. And if you self-diagnose, you might not even have the disorder.

The more we talk about something, the more people self-diagnose. So, for a while, from around 2000 to 2010, bipolar disorder was very popular.

New medications had come out, and a lot of people were talking about it, and a lot more people were self-diagnosing as bipolar.

And mental health professionals are not immune to this. For example, there have been weird trends in trauma treatment were decades ago, therapists thought there was this massive wave of ritualistic sexual abuse.

So, they would suggest that to their clients in therapy, sometimes under hypnosis, and then their clients would form memories, memories of this abuse, and then confirm the idea to the therapist.

Now, it’s been shown that therapists helped clients create false memories. It’s pretty disappointing, right?

There was also a trend in trauma treatment where people who had experienced trauma would get triggered, and they’d fall on the floor and convulse.  

Like that was really common a few decades ago, but now it’s not. So, those are both examples where the more people talk about certain ways trauma is expressed or certain ways trauma happened, the more people then believe that that’s how they experience it.

This is why psychology is partly a hard science and partly a soft science, right?  Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t some cases of ritualistic sexual abuse or that some people with PTSD don’t convulse.

But the waves of the trends indicate that once we start talking about this stuff, we start to see it more.

And that’s how psychology works. The more we talk about something, the more we get out of it. We humans are very suggestible. 

So, here’s what I’m trying to say. Right now, it’s culturally very cool and very popular to be very open and talk about mental health.

And this is great. I’m totally for mental health awareness, as long as it comes with education about what to do about it instead of just leaving people feeling broken.

But if everyone is just learning about mental health on the internet or from the pharmaceutical commercials and it’s not sequential, then they aren’t getting that first lesson in all the psych classes.

They aren’t learning how to protect themselves from seeing every disorder in themselves.

And they aren’t getting all the other lessons with the skills of what to do to improve your mental health.

So, this is my attempt to give you that first lesson. Right now, I think one of the hottest trends in popular psychology are narcissism and narcissistic abuse.  

Everyone’s talking about it. And just like the person, tree, house, now everyone’s seeing it in their boss and their parents and their ex, and suddenly the rates of narcissism have shot up.

Narcissism is cool. I can give a lot of examples of people coming to me and asking if their person is a narcissist, but that is for another video.

So, I hope you’ll be really cautious about how you think about diagnoses, how you think about getting treatment, and maybe be a little bit slower to diagnose the people around you.

And when it comes to trends, you know what isn’t trendy but I’d love for it to be cool again?

Personal responsibility, honesty, accountability, growth mindset, personal self-reliance, and community values, and kick-butt mental health education that everyone can access.  

But these are not very fun topics. They don’t make great headlines or fun gossip.  

Deciding that your ex is a narcissist, that’s kind of fun.

Now, just to recap: ADHD, bipolar disorder, autism, narcissism, PTSD, and other mental health disorders are real disorders, and there’s no need to be ashamed of them. Let’s just find them and treat them.

Just be a little careful before you run around and diagnose everyone, including yourself. Talk with your mental health providers and see what they think.

Also, don’t cling too closely to a diagnosis, because a diagnosis isn’t an identity;  it’s an experience. I’m not saying it isn’t real. You might meet the criteria, but it’s something you are experiencing; it’s not who you are.

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