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Friday, April 19, 2024

TikTok says I have ADHD

The implications of self-diagnostic social media content 

 

By MOLLY THOMPSON — mmtthompson@ucdavis.edu 

 

“Put a finger down if it’s hard for you to stay organized,” an “expert” said in a TikTok video who went on to diagnose me with ADHD — attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. 

It has become increasingly common in recent years for internet creators to post videos listing symptoms and characteristics of varying mental health conditions with the intention of helping viewers potentially discover underlying ailments that they can treat. Some producers are genuinely qualified doctors trying to spread educational information, but the vast majority who contribute to the heavy saturation of this type of content are people who have experienced some sort of neurodivergence or mental illness and are sharing their own anecdotal accounts. 

There are a few reasons it has become so popular; there are certainly success stories of people realizing that they were living with a disorder that they could take actions to treat, for one. But more fervently, there is a complex ecosystem on social media of glamorization of mental illness that makes it seem, in a twisted sort of way, desirable. 

Even though no one explicitly voices the sentiment of wanting to be mentally ill, our generation has made it seem cool (which is a whole other article on its own). So naturally, when we see a video that tells us we have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), we want to align with it because it makes us feel special. To complicate it further, oftentimes we will genuinely be struggling and seeing these videos validates that. Even if it is not necessarily, in this example, OCD that we are struggling with, thinking that it might be makes us feel justified and affirmed in the sense that we are not just exaggerating or making it all up. 

Issues present themselves when we as a society start to take it too far. When it comes down to it, nobody can get a diagnosis from a video. An actual diagnosis takes more than a list of symptoms — no mental condition presents the same way in everyone, and they are so complex that professionals need to take into account your history, personality, lifestyle and more in order to come to a conclusion. 

There are certainly commonalities across people with the same disorders, but there is too much variation to encapsulate in a thirty-second video. Simultaneously, internet depictions of these disorders tend to be very visual and single-narrative, which perpetuates the surrounding stereotypes. It is common for people who suffer from conditions that do not manifest in the classically presented ways to dismiss their symptoms since they do not align with what is typically shown in the media. 

When it is so easy to draw misdiagnoses, the weight of a real diagnosis becomes diluted. It’s analogous to the phenomenon that occurs with food allergies: when people claim that their sensitivities or preferences are allergies, allergies start to be treated as sensitivities or preferences, which is dangerous for people with actual allergies. When everyone is claiming that they are “so OCD,” suddenly real cases of OCD are not taken seriously and can easily be dismissed as non-issues. 

A lot of the claims made by these videos are also incredibly easy for a very broad audience to relate to. Something like “You might have ADHD if… you’ve kind of struggled with anxiety and depression throughout your life” (this is a direct quote) is applicable to an immense range of people, especially in an age where there is more awareness and transparency around mental health issues than ever before. 

It is almost comparable to astrology — horoscopes and astrologically based guides are notorious for being extremely ambiguous and general (today, CoStar told me not to overreact). In both cases, they give you very vague information that you are likely to relate to, even on a small scale. As an example, there is a significant difference between misophonia and a tendency to get annoyed by certain sounds. They get conflated as a result of the way the symptoms are described, which leads viewers to jump to conclusions. You’ll relate to it, you’ll see yourself in it and you’ll start to wonder if you have ADHD, OCD or autism (or maybe if Mercury is just in retrograde again). 

I have a very dear friend who has OCD. It took her a long time to figure it out, partially because she did not relate to the narrative that’s commonly pushed — her life did not look like the lives of online creators sharing their experiences with the disorder. Now that she has a professional diagnosis, she frequently encounters people who have diagnosed themselves and think that she is “doing so much better” than they are because she has been formally diagnosed, and they have not.

 We do not get to diminish the struggles of others to validate ourselves and our own burdens. Again, that is a whole article on its own, but it is a cycle that is perpetuated by normalization of self-diagnostics and misrepresentation of mental conditions. The message that is sent (regardless of how it’s actually phrased) is often “Oh, I have OCD too, but I never got a professional diagnosis, so I’ve never gotten any care, unlike you.” 

While a self-assessment could very well be legitimate, it is not okay to pit our issues against others’ in a way that implies that they take pity on us — we can’t even begin to assume what they are dealing with, professional assistance isn’t necessarily conducive to health. 

All that being said, there are still some positive aspects of this phenomenon. For one, it can encourage people to get screened by professionals for potential mental conditions. It is always a good thing to decrease the taboo-ness around mental illnesses, which is something that this trend is helping with — it is prompting people to talk more openly about their mental health. 

A self-diagnosis, in and of itself, is not inherently invalid; it can be a great tool for people who do not have access to formal diagnostics. The fact that I might relate to a diagnostic TikTok video is an independently genuine fact that should be acknowledged and attended to. It is objectively a privilege to have access to professional input, and if social media content can help people better understand themselves and their brains, then by all means we should continue those conversations. Self-diagnoses can very well be correct, but the trend as a whole has gone too far and is creating more harm than benefit in our society. 

 

Written by: Molly Thompson — mmtthompson@ucdavis.edu 

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