The Stigma of Self Diagnosing

A person examines the depths of their own mind. It can be difficult for teens to figure out what’s going on inside their head, which is why many turn to self-diagnosing.
Illustration by Pearl McNames.

CONTENT WARNING: This article talks about sensitive topics around mental health, depression, and other issues that may be triggering for some. 

Self-diagnosing is a term that has been popularized on the internet within the last decade, often seen as a negative thing. The act of diagnosing yourself is saying that you have a condition that you have not gotten a professional diagnosis for. It’s often used for mental health conditions like Major Depressive Disorder (MDD, also known as depression), anxiety disorders and eating disorders, or neurodivergencies like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD, also known as autism). Diagnosing yourself is usually shunned on the internet; people see those who self-diagnose as taking resources from those who are professionally diagnosed, or that they are faking their symptoms. “When you diagnose yourself, people often don’t trust you,” said an anonymous Franklin student. “[People] think you are just saying you have the disorders for attention.”

These biases against people who self-diagnose can discourage them from getting a professional diagnosis, and cause them to doubt themselves. “When I was in middle school, I diagnosed myself with depression and suicidal thoughts,” said another anonymous Franklin student, who we will call Andy. “After reaching out to adults at my school, they treated me as if I was doing it for attention and wasn’t seriously attempting to get help. It wasn’t until a teacher found me panicking, trying to convince myself that I had things left to live, for anyone to start listening to me.”

One of the reasons there is such a stigma against diagnosing yourself is because of how people talk about their self-diagnosis. There was a consensus among the students interviewed that it is damaging to self-diagnose without proper research. Oftentimes, self-diagnosing is viewed as seeing a relatable meme or post vaguely related to a condition, and saying you have said condition without looking into it any further. Oliver River Satalich (12) said that they saw posts about ADHD in middle school and heavily related to them, so they did further research. “I did research, looked at symptoms and diagnostic criteria from the [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)], and listened to people who were diagnosed,” they said. “I realized that I definitely had ADHD because my normal was not other people’s normals.”

While some people who self-diagnose are like Satalich and do their research, others not so much. “Not even a day after I told my friends [about my depression], they started saying that they also had it,” said Andy. “They carried on, downplaying it as if [depression] was a cool personality trait.” This has become a larger issue within the past decade, with sites like Instagram and TikTok allowing people to share small parts of their experiences with their mental health conditions. While this can be good in giving a sense of community to those who share diagnoses, it also leads to people assuming they have conditions that they may not have. “[Some people] take one look at a shiny infographic or post and they say they have ADHD,” said Satalich. Megan Moyer, one of Franklin’s School Psychologists, echoes this sentiment. “There is a difference between reading for understanding about something and saying “I have X diagnosis,” she says. “[Social media] gives you all this information, and what you do with it is the important piece.”

While going to a professional to seek a diagnosis should be the next step in an ideal world, the reality is, not everyone is treated equally when it comes to diagnosing. According to a study by The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network through the Center for Disease Control, autism is around 4.3 times more common in boys under 8 than it is in girls of the same age group. While ASD could be more common amongst boys, it is unlikely that girls are 4.3 times less likely to have ASD, which indicates a gender bias. This gender bias can also be seen in ADHD, with males being 4 times more likely to be diagnosed than females. Biases occur because criteria for diagnosing ASD and ADHD are primarily based on how symptoms manifest in males; females tend to internalize symptoms much more, or present them differently. Additionally, some doctors can incorrectly view symptoms of ASD as signs of anxiety, depression, or ADHD. Seeking out an official diagnosis is great, but only if you are taken seriously by the doctors involved. Unfortunately, that does not happen for some, which is why people turn to self-diagnosing to find community and answers to their feelings. For other people, an official diagnosis isn’t realistic, whether their family is unsupportive, or they lack the money and time to get the diagnosis. If this sounds like you, Franklin has lots of great resources available.

“The best place to go is our Franklin Resource Page in our Counseling Center Area,” said Moyer. This page includes a list of crisis lines; lists of Portland therapists, including LGBTQ+ and therapists of color; and other resources. Other support staff in Franklin include counselors, social workers and school psychologists. Moyer said that talking to your counselor is best if you’re seeking a professional diagnosis; they should then redirect you to someone who can assist in the diagnostic process.

Some people use the tool of self-diagnosis incorrectly, saying they have a condition just because they saw a relatable post. But others use it as a genuine way to learn about themselves and to connect with others who are similar to them. Self-diagnosis and the desire to learn more about their potential condition often leads them to getting a professional diagnosis. Satalich said it best: “I think overall [self-diagnosis] is positive,” they said. “Even if there are those people who decide that they have a mental illness after looking at one post, it is still providing education on that disorder.”

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