Young People on TikTok: Self-Diagnosing Serious Mental Health Disorders – What’s Behind This Trend?

Dr. Serenity
April 13, 2023

The Rise of “Dr. TikTok”: Young People’s Trend of Diagnosing Serious Mental Health Disorders. What’s Behind This Alarming Trend?

The popular social media app TikTok has become a platform for young people to self-diagnose serious mental health disorders like ADHD and OCD. While it has been praised for starting conversations about mental health, this new trend can be dangerous as it is not a reliable source for accurate information. Many people on TikTok are not mental health professionals and may not provide accurate information, warns psychologist and author Doreen Dodgen-Magee.


Navigating a Mental Health Care Crisis Amid Barriers to Care

Recent years have seen a decline in the mental health of young people in the United States, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation. In December 2021, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory that highlighted the escalating mental health crisis among the youth. But while young people are facing unprecedented challenges, barriers to mental healthcare may prevent them from getting the help 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 some of the factors that keep young people from seeking mental healthcare. A review published in January 2020 in European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggested these issues as potential barriers to care.

The situation is even more challenging for teens who belong to racial or ethnic minorities. Low household income, lack of health insurance, lack of access to culturally competent care, and parental and cultural beliefs about mental healthcare can affect their ability to access treatment, according to a review published in March 2021 in Frontiers in Public Health.

In this context, some young people may turn to social media to fill the gaps in care. Social media is often the first line of information for millennials and Generation Z members, making the information shared there extremely valuable. “For many viewers, 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,” says Akua Boateng, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist based in Philadelphia who specializes in individual and couples therapy.

However, it’s important to note that not all TikTok creators provide accurate or science-backed information about mental health. This is especially troubling given that many people scrolling through TikTok may not know how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of information. Young people in crisis may be particularly vulnerable to misinformation, underscoring the urgent need to improve access to reliable mental healthcare resources.


Why Relying on Self-Diagnosis Can Be Problematic

While social media platforms like TikTok have played an important role in destigmatizing mental health, using them as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment can be a double-edged sword. Experts warn that relying on self-diagnosis based on social media can lead to inaccurate conclusions about mental health conditions.

According to John F. Tholen, a retired cognitive psychologist in California, diagnosing a psychiatric condition is a complex process that requires expert knowledge and subtle distinctions. Symptoms of mental health disorders can be experienced by many individuals, but not all of them meet the diagnostic criteria for a disorder. For instance, mood changes are common, but only a persistent and severe shift in mood can lead to a diagnosis of a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder.

It is also important to note that some medical conditions, such as thyroid issues or heartbeat irregularities, can mimic the symptoms of a mental health disorder. Missing these conditions by relying on self-diagnosis can be dangerous, warns Tholen.

Additionally, relying solely on social media can lead to the overlooking of the critical factors that need to be considered during a diagnosis. “Social media does not take into account important factors such as cultural or individual differences, comorbid conditions, developmental history, environmental factors, and the impact of the disorder on daily functioning,” explains Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PsyD, a psychologist based in Oregon.

Experts suggest that while social media platforms can be a valuable resource for mental health education and awareness, it should never be a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. It is crucial to seek advice from trained mental health professionals who can accurately diagnose and treat mental health conditions.


How to Obtain a Reliable Mental Health Diagnosis

Getting a reliable diagnosis is essential to getting the right treatment for mental health conditions such as borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, or ADHD. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

  • Start with a Primary Doctor

Your first step should be to visit your primary doctor for an initial exam. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and may perform some medical tests to eliminate any other health issues that could be causing your symptoms. If they suspect a mental health condition, they will refer you to a mental health professional for further evaluation and treatment.

  • Finding a Mental Health Professional

If you need help finding a mental health professional, resources such as the American Psychiatric Association and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America offer search tools to help you find a professional near you. It’s important to find a licensed and experienced therapist who specializes in treating the specific mental health condition you’re concerned about.

  • Costs of Therapy

While therapy can be expensive, there are ways to reduce the costs. Some therapists offer sliding-scale costs based on an individual’s income, and virtual therapy through apps such as BetterHelp and Talkspace is often less expensive than in-person therapy.

  • Seeking Professional Confirmation

If you suspect that you may have a mental health condition, seeking professional confirmation is the best step. Making a psychiatric diagnosis is a complicated process that requires a trained professional. While social media can provide helpful information and support, it’s important to recognize the limitations of self-diagnosis and seek professional help for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.


How to Evaluate Mental Health Information on TikTok

TikTok has become a popular platform for discussing mental health, but it’s important to know how to evaluate the reliability of the information presented, say experts.

While some TikTok creators may be trained mental health professionals, many others may share their personal experiences. According to psychologist Boateng, these firsthand experiences can be helpful as long as they are based on accurate information. However, there are limitations to their expertise.

Psychologist Dodgen-Magee suggests several questions to consider when evaluating mental health information found on TikTok:

  1. Can the creator provide evidence to support their claims?
  2. Are their thoughts, ideas, or opinions based on more than one person’s experience?
  3. Does the information they share align with other reliable and high-quality sources?
  4. Is the creator being compensated by anyone who might influence their content?

It’s essential to check information from multiple platforms to ensure it is reliable and trustworthy. Additionally, the American Psychological Association and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America can help you find reliable mental health professionals if you need further evaluation and treatment.

Author Dr. Serenity

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