We Need to be Mindful When Discussing Self-Diagnosing Mental Disorders

Though you'd probably be most familiar with the heated attitudes that often arise when discussing self-diagnosing if you were a Tumblr teen, the ugly reality is that this conversation is almost universally filled with tension. For those who don't know what self-diagnosing means when it comes to mental illness, it's very similar to how you might google a physical sensation you're experiencing, like heartburn, and end up wondering if you what you're experiencing might be a symptom of a much more serious illness, like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). We've all been there. The only difference is that when it comes to self-diagnosing mental illness, you'd typically switch out heartburn for something psychological, like mood swings.

You might already be seeing the potential issue with this based on that comparison alone, but I'm actually not here to dissect the act of self-diagnosing. As someone who has read many opinion pieces published by actual medical professionals as well as testimonials written by patients who have gone through the process of trying to get diagnosed, I see the reasoning behind each perspective. As someone who was confident she'd walk out of her psychiatrist appointment with a bipolar diagnosis and instead left the building with a packet on what BPD is, I completely understand the perspective that people can very easily "miss the nuances of diagnosis." Similarly, I'm also well-aware that patients are subject to their doctor's biases, which can, according to Psychology Today, "exclude women and people of color in clinical settings" and that these latent prejudices might impact one's chances of getting a diagnosis. 

If you aren't really educated on self-diagnosing, I do recommend first researching what the mental health academic world has to say about the issue because conversations about this online can get... well, nasty. And we've let that go unchecked for far too long. I've read countless posts about people who self-diagnose for years that are downright hateful, and it's time we analyze how much of a role the stigma against people struggling with illness plays in these opinions. Because, quite frankly, some of these hot takes are probably doing more harm than they are good.

Let's start with the most glaringly obvious claim that is routinely made with absolutely zero thought behind it: that people who self-diagnose mental disorders are just doing it to get attention or to use it as an excuse for bad behavior. I'll admit, it took me a very long time to realize how this argument completely relies on a very ugly stigma against people coping with mental illness. And that's an oversight that is downright frightening to think about. Any time that someone connects mental health with faking symptoms for attention, they're inherently furthering an attitude that directly harms people attempting to live with mental illness, and we need to start treating it as such. Mental health is never an excuse for damaging behaviors; however, it is the context often necessary in explaining your experience to people who have not undergone the symptoms you have. Insinuating that mentally ill people do not actually want to change their maladaptive behaviors or, worse, that they enjoy doing them is disgusting, no matter what you're arguing for or against. 

Similarly, insisting that people's experiences with their bodies are only valid once they get them co-signed by a medical professional is incredibly problematic. This idea is also very clearly rooted in the stigma against the mentally ill, but it affects healthcare patients universally in how it dismisses them. If you see nothing wrong with only recognizing someone's suffering when it is backed by a doctor, I invite you to read the heartwrenching thread where countless black women recount how their severe pain was ignored by healthcare practitioners, and it almost cost them their life. While it's true that diagnosing mental disorders may need the experience a doctor would have, we need to be mindful that we're not articulating that sentiment in a way that harms people by gaslighting them about their own experiences. 

Finally, we need to be more considerate of how we talk about getting diagnosed by a professional in terms of accessibility. If someone is self-diagnosing because they cannot afford to bring their concerns to a doctor, we need to support them with empathy first and foremost. Regardless of how you personally might view self-diagnosing, it will not make an appointment that's not covered by insurance spontaneously cost nothing, and our attitudes need to reflect this accessibility challenge whenever we discuss seeking treatment for illness. If you do ultimately believe that self-diagnosing is inherently flawed because a diagnosis requires an outside perspective, you should devote the energy you'd waste vilifying people who do self-diagnose to tackling this disparity in healthcare accessibility. 

While everyone is entitled to form their own opinion, no one should further nasty stigmas while developing it. The next time and every time we talk about mental illness, we need to be mindful of what prejudices we might be giving power to.