Self-diagnosing mental health conditions with social media and how it can be dangerous
Psychologists in Singapore are seeing more cases of youths diagnosing themselves with mental health conditions based on what they read on social media.
“Five signs you have ADHD”, “How to tell if you have Anxiety”, “Symptoms of someone suffering from OCD” – you might have come across these “resources”, but not exactly from licensed professionals.
Instead, creators on social media platforms are seen pushing out these mental health content from the comforts of their homes.
The volume of mental health content on social media platforms is on the rise. Be it pretty Instagram carousels or snappy TikTok videos, mental health information is being packaged into digestible content for youths to consume.
Local media reported that some psychologists in Singapore are seeing more cases of youths diagnosing themselves with mental health conditions based on what they read on social media. Dr Geraldine Tan, a principal registered psychologist from The Therapy Room, was consulted on the rising trend and shared that only 10 per cent of self-diagnosed patients have the conditions they thought they did.
Accountancy undergraduate Teo Min, 21, doesn’t find this statistic surprising. She believes that it starts from finding just one relatable thing about the mental health issue presented.
“[From there,] you start convincing yourself in your head that you relate to the other symptoms presented, just so that you can justify to yourself why you’re feeling this way, and sort of escape from the reality of it,” said the Nanyang Technological University student.
This could possibly stem from the characteristics of youth and perhaps the stage of life they are at. “You’re at the age where you’re trying your best to fit in with your peers and your environment, so it’s normal to want to relate to something and latch onto it,” Min added.
Mental health content on social media has become an accessible and convenient avenue for youths to verbalise their feelings. Instead of grappling with their intangible feelings, such content could potentially provide them with something slightly more concrete to work with.
For Fathinah Al-Husna, 21, she came across these mental health TikToks accidentally on her TikTok For You Page (FYP) but decided to stay because she wanted to get a clearer understanding of what she was experiencing.
The Sociology undergraduate at National University of Singapore said: “Personally, I find that the content kind of gives me a bit of relief and explanation during my busy moments mid-semester, where I don’t have time to properly visit a medical professional for an explanation on my symptoms.”
Although she acknowledges that some of the information might be false, Fathinah still found a sense of solidarity in them on days that were harder to get through. “It felt quite paralysing and also lonely as I don’t really share my struggles with my friends,” she added. “So, it felt nice to find content I could relate to.”
This feeling of being less alone is what two local mental health content creators strive to achieve when producing content for the community.
For Calm Collective, the organisation aims to normalise mental health conversations on Instagram, TikTok and Linkedin. Their content is heavily inspired by the team’s personal experiences, learnings and conversations with others.
However, they draw the line when it comes to listing out symptoms of mental health conditions. Alyssa Reinoso, its co-founder and head of content, said: “There is a real danger that people, especially youth, will rely only on social media without seeking a mental health professional to get a proper diagnosis.”
Unlike the team behind Calm Collective, mental health advocate and content creator Ron Yap is more open to including mental health condition symptoms on his Instagram platform @mentalhealthceo.
With such content being scientific in nature, the 26-year-old sets aside time to look into academic journals and articles by credible authors to ensure reliability. His current pursuit for a Masters in Counselling has also widened his access to more scientific resources.
Condensing technical concepts into a digestible bite-size format is one of the roles Ron believes content creators like him play.
Visually appealing graphics, short skits reenacting and evaluating conversations or direct addresses from creators themselves – mental health content is packaged in a myriad of shapes and forms.
It is this familiarity and fondness youths have developed towards social media that makes it easy for them to find out more about mental health, said Dr Benjamin Hill Detenber, an Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
Apart from misdiagnosis, Dr Detenber posits that exaggerated concern or worry over symptoms could also pose a potential problem.
“Medical doctors and people who study the Internet and social media sometimes refer to this as ‘cyberchondria’,” he said. “In other words, based on information they get from the web or social media, people believe they have various medical or health conditions when they do not.”
Despite these pitfalls, not everyone finds consuming such content to be entirely a detrimental thing.
While Ron acknowledges the possible harms, he sees how such content can be beneficial in helping one identify certain behaviours.
“What [I find] more helpful is not saying that I 100 per cent have this condition but the idea that I could have this condition,” he explained.
Through his platform, he aims to provide the starting tools that people would need to self-manage their issues or the extra push to spur them to consider going for therapy.
Where listing of symptoms can prove to be more problematic, Calm Collective’s co-founder Alyssa sees greater value in pushing out gentle reminders, self-coping techniques and encouragement to delve further into mental health through further reading.
In particular, life hacks and methods that make life easier have been helpful for one Social Science undergraduate.
Singapore Management University student Katrina Lumalu, 21, initially sought professional help because of her anxiety. Eventually, her psychiatrist diagnosed her with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) mixed type.
To her, mental health TikTok videos serve as another avenue for her to receive information. They supplement her understanding of her condition and journey towards getting better.
For instance, she is now more aware about emotional dysregulation. A possible core trait of someone with ADHD, people with this find it harder to regulate their emotions when provoked. She realises that what was once a trait she blamed herself about is actually something often out of her control.
Now, she exercises more kindness towards herself.
Apart from the educational experience, she also enjoys the use of humour in some of the content she has come across, making things more lighthearted at times.
However, as sincere as content creators’ intentions may be, there will be times when they fall short.
One of @mentalhealthceo’s posts ‘Things you shouldn’t say to suicidal people’ drew its fair share of negative feedback. Due to a lack of clarity on certain phrases used, what was intended to educate people who weren’t suicidal ended up offending those who were.
“I felt quite bad after that, because the people that I was trying to help with that post were the ones who were hurt by it,” Ron, who runs the account, said.
Even though he is a creator in this online community, he understands the limitations of platforms like his on social media.
He said: “In the end, there’s really only so much that social media can do because again, it cannot replace therapy, it cannot replace professional help.”
Still, some feel that getting a proper diagnosis is often easier said than done.
Katrina, who got diagnosed with ADHD early this year, finds herself on the luckier side of the coin. “A diagnosis is a privilege and not everyone has access to it,” she said.
She explained that an appointment with a private healthcare professional can often be expensive. Consulting a cheaper healthcare professional in the public sector may take months or even a year. In addition, she also believes that those with families who stigmatise mental health may find it difficult to seek treatment without their parents knowing.
While social media has lowered the barriers to what used to be privileged or difficult-to-access mental health information, it has also “opened the floodgates” for a lot of false or misleading information, shared Dr Detenber.
“With few or no gatekeepers, some novices may find it difficult to discriminate between what is good and what is bad information,” he added.
Hence, he encourages people to turn to official resources instead, being mindful to exercise digital media literacy.
He said: “Personally, I would be very wary of getting any kind of health information from TikTok or YouTube videos.”
“There are plenty of other sources of reliable information on the Internet if one knows where to look, and that’s what I tend to do.”
Here are some mental health resources you might find useful: