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The Pros and Cons of Self-Diagnosis Culture

June 2, 2017

I think I first learned about executive dysfunction a year ago. “Am I dealing with executive dysfunction or am I just stupid?” my friend asked, partially joking. Unsure of exactly what he meant, I did a bit of brief research before responding with (what I think) was an answer that merely acknowledged his concerns. I didn’t really want him to self-diagnose too quickly, after all.

Executive dysfunction is just one of the many mental illnesses and disorders commonly self-diagnosed, especially in a time where open discussion of mental illness is growing increasingly acceptable. Most open spaces online have at least touched on the subject of stress or mental health in some way, and conversations about illnesses like anxiety or depression are increasingly common. Really, it’s no wonder that people are more aware of mental illnesses and are willing to look at their own experiences because of them.

Even I’m guilty of partaking in self-diagnosis, having seriously referred to myself as depressed for two years before my doctor “confirmed” it (and by that, I mean told me I was definitely dealing with depression but refused to make any actual diagnosis or even document the fact that I’d been screened for it, but that’s another story). I collect ADHD/ADD life hacks and management tips like a squirrel obsessively collecting nuts and storing them for winter (before completely forgetting their location), despite not having a diagnosis for ADD or thinking I might need one.

But is this necessarily a bad thing? Some seem to think it is. Arguments against self-diagnosis range from accusations of oversimplifying mental illness to suggesting that it takes credibility away from those who are professionally diagnosed. Named cyberchrondia (I have to wonder, are these people okay with self-diagnosing as a cyberchrondiac?), the trend focuses on relatively limited, web-based research into all sorts of mental illnesses or disorders that are hard enough to diagnose with the help of an actual psychiatrist, therapist, or licensed social worker.

Of course, it can be concerning to assume from little to no evidence and a limited test that a label applies to you, when that label, for many, describes a lifelong, life-altering experience. And when those with professional diagnoses are put under the same umbrella as cyberchrondiacs, it makes sense that things might get a little… complicated. Those self-diagnosing, while they may display a few traits connected to the mental illness they’re associating with, could potentially create an inaccurate standard that professionally diagnosed people are then expected to fit into. The last thing anyone needs is to be questioned for “not acting like their illness” despite having the proof and experience that come with it.

But for the most part, this generally isn’t the case. The majority of those who self-diagnose (and stick to it in the long-term, at least) aren’t just going off of a list of WebMD symptoms. With greater web accessibility to discussion of mental illness, the number of people willing to discuss their experiences grows daily. Increasing the space provided to share personal history and traits moves research further from “cyberchrondia” and closer to exploring what experiences individuals might actually face.

This open space for mentally ill and disabled people to share experiences has also, naturally, opened up to promote activism and share ideas. Topics ranging from romanticizing depression to phasing out autism spectrum labels like “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” are increasingly common, especially for those who might be researching their own mental health and needs. Even if the person’s suspicions about their self-diagnosis are incorrect, they usually emerge from the process more informed than most people, giving them the potential to be fantastic allies (provided they continue to listen to mentally ill voices).

Finally, the knowledge obtained from self-diagnosis research can help fix a number of smaller issues, even if they’re not the result of an actual mental illness. For example, while I probably don’t have ADD, a lot of ADD-geared study recommendations and organization methods have helped me deal with my inability to organize myself. Would I ever tell someone, without context like this article, that I use these freely accessible, online resources all the time? Probably not. The last thing I want to do is contribute to the “everyone’s a little ADD/OCD/etc” culture (you know, the one in which people belittle serious experiences with mental illness by implying that everyone can relate to them?). I definitely don’t want to suggest that people start actively using resources intended for mentally ill people that they don’t really benefit from (for example, treating fidget spinners like a cool fad or toy, instead of as things that some people use to focus in daily activities), either. Being aware of things like that is essential in being an ally.

Ultimately, it comes down to awareness. Self-diagnosis, when done correctly, can help in all sorts of ways. Being rational is essential on both sides of the argument, both in seeing that people rarely explore these things “just because” and in understanding that it’s crucial not to speak over the voices of those who’ve been professionally diagnosed. Growing accessibility means increased understanding, something that most of us could really benefit from overall.


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