You’re probably familiar with “Dr. Google” — aka using Google to try to self-diagnose a health issue, and jumping to the conclusion that you have cancer or you’re dying. Now there’s a new version for the younger crowd: “Dr. TikTok?”
The popular social media platform TikTok, known for 15-second video clips about pretty much any topic you can think of, has been lauded for starting important conversations about mental health, especially among young people, enabling them to learn about mental health conditions, and get support from peers going through the same things.
But now a more troubling mental health TikTok trend has arisen. Within the past year, there’s been an increase in teens and young adults using TikTok to self-diagnose conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder (DID), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) ), and Tourette syndrome, among others.
That’s problematic, not only because a diagnosis should be made by an experienced mental health care expert, but because while plenty of TikTok creators post helpful information about mental health issues, not all do, says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PsyD, a psychologist based in Lake Oswego, Oregon, and author of Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World.
“There are many accounts, hosted by educated, trained, and licensed professionals where reliable information can be found,” says Dr. Dodgen-Magee. But not all posts contain accurate, science-backed information — and many people scrolling through TikTok don’t know this, she warns.
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When a Mental Health Care Crisis and Barriers to Care Collide
It’s no secret that the mental health of our nation’s youths has suffered in recent years, especially amid the isolation, health scares, deaths, and other uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2021, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, issued an advisory about the escalating mental health crisis among young people.
“The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate. And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating,” Dr. Murthy wrote in his advisory.
At the same time, there are barriers that can keep young people from getting the mental healthcare they need. Stigma toward mental health issues, lack of trust in healthcare professionals, not knowing where to turn for help, and believing their problems aren’t serious enough to warrant help are several factors that keep youths from seeking help, suggested a review published in January 2020 in European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Among teens who belong to racial or ethnic minorities, factors such as low household income, lack of health insurance, availability of culturally competent care, and parental and cultural beliefs about mental healthcare could affect their ability to access treatment, according to a review published in March 2021 in Frontiers in Public Health.
For better or worse, young people in crisis may be turning to TikTok to fill these gaps to care.
“Social media is a first line of information for a huge demographic. Many millennials and Generation Z members check social media more than the news, which makes the information received there extremely valuable,” explains Akua Boateng, PhD, a Philadelphia-based licensed psychotherapist who specializes in individual and couples therapy.
And for some youths, mental health TikToks may be the first discussions about mental health they’re exposed to, especially if these topics aren’t talked about at home or school. In fact, some viewers may have limited to no prior mental health education before seeing these topics talked about on TikTok, according to Dr. Boateng.
RELATED: Surgeon General Says Mental Health of America’s Youth Is in Crisis: Where Do We Go From Here?
Why Self-Diagnosis Often Falls Short
Although the growing mental health community on TikTok has helped reduce stigma and open the door for people to seek professional help, it’s important to recognize the limitations of social media when it comes to diagnosing mental health conditions, say experts.
“The danger of social media self-diagnosis is that it is frequently incorrect,” says John F. Tholen, PhD, a retired cognitive psychologist in Seal Beach, California, and author of Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind. Dr. Tholen has extensive experience treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with cognitive behavioral therapy.
“As any professional can attest, making a psychiatric diagnosis is a complicated process that often requires subtle distinctions. There is a big difference between experiencing symptoms and having a disorder,” Dr. Tholen adds.
Many people can experience symptoms associated with various mental health disorders, but less severely or persistently than what’s required for a diagnosis, explains Tholen. For instance, many people experience normal shifts in mood throughout their day, but don’t meet the diagnostic criteria needed for a diagnosis of mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder.
“To be diagnosable, a psychological or personality disorder must interfere significantly with our ability to function in major aspects of life, such as relationships, school, work, or the ability to experience pleasure,” Tholen says.
Furthermore, says Tholen, “Another danger of psychiatric self-diagnosing is missing a treatable medical condition, such as thyroid issues or heartbeat irregularity.” The symptoms of these conditions can sometimes look alike, Tholen adds.
How to Get a Reliable Mental Health Diagnosis
It can be difficult to get a diagnosis for serious conditions like borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, or ADHD. Nevertheless, knowing how to get a reliable diagnosis is key to getting the help you need.
“If you suspect that you may have a mental condition, the best step is to seek professional confirmation,” says Tholen.
Getting a diagnosis usually starts with a visit to your primary doctor for an exam. They’ll ask you about your symptoms and might run some medical tests to rule out any other health issues that could be causing your symptoms. Your doctor will also likely refer you to a mental health professional for further evaluation and treatment. If you need help finding a mental health professional, resources like the American Psychiatric Association and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America offer search tools to help you find a professional near you.
Therapy can get expensive, but there are a few ways to help reduce the costs. For instance, some therapists offer sliding-scale costs based on an individual’s income. And virtual therapy offered through apps such as BetterHelp and Talkspace is often less expensive than in-person therapy.
Vetting Mental Health TikToks
Although you may see videos made by trained mental health professionals as you’re scrolling through TikTok, you’ll also likely encounter a lot of firsthand experiences from people with mental health issues too, says Boateng. While these experiences can be helpful as long as they’re providing true information, they have their limitations.
Dodgen-Magee agrees. “It’s important to recognize this and to make sure that we are checking information we are relying upon regarding our own mental health against several different places or platforms in order to find information that is reliable,” she advises.
She recommends asking yourself the following questions as a way of fact-checking mental health information found on TikTok:
- “Can this person provide evidence for the claims they’re making?”
- “Are their thoughts, ideas, or opinions based on more than one person’s experience?”
- “Does the information they share stack up with other reliable and high-quality sources?”
- “Is this creator being paid by anyone who might influence their content?”