Is self diagnosis valid when it comes to mental illness?

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Is self diagnosis valid? A photo of a fashionable young man wearing trendy sunglasses, posing on yellow background. Their face is reflected into a mirror.

When it comes to mental illness, is self-diagnosis valid?

Self-diagnosis of mental illness has risks, including missing a medical disease that masquerades as a psychiatric syndrome.

Obtaining a medical diagnosis for a mental illness is usually only available for the privileged. Diagnosis is not always accessible, which is my self-diagnosis is valid.

Self diagnosis can help people accept their mental illness and find community and resources that help them with their condition.

Hi! 


I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


I’ve never been formally diagnosed with it, but I know I have it.

How? Because my experiences meet and exceed the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.

This is partly because I struggled to find a consistent and qualified counselor willing to diagnose me.


A few of my therapists didn’t want to diagnose me because they didn’t want me to get “held up” on a diagnosis. 


Even though I wanted some kind of label and language so that I could articulate my pain.


I decided that I needed to start calling it PTSD.


Read more: How do labels can empower people?


I self-diagnosed myself with PTSD. But this doesn’t mean my PTSD is any less real. It definitely doesn’t mean that it’s any less severe.

Mental health self-misdiagnoses are real

One of the most significant issues with self-diagnosing is that you might misdiagnose yourself.


Yes, professionals also misdiagnose many people. But they’re certainly less likely to make a misdiagnosis than yourself.


I recently spoke to someone who strongly suspected they had bipolar disorder. And then, after a few years of therapy, they found out they had borderline personality disorder.


Their self-diagnosis was ultimately based on misconceptions about bipolar disorder. They assumed that their sudden, inexplicable shifts in behavior, mood, and personality were because of bipolar, which is often equated with being temperamental, unstable, and inconsistent.


This view of bipolar disorder is reinforced by misrepresentation in the media. And the flippant way we use the term as an adjective to describe anything from unpredictable weather to a person who often changes their mind.


In reality, they had mistaken the symptoms of borderline personality disorder for bipolar disorder.


Borderline personality disorder is characterized by intense and unstable relationships, impulsive and possibly dangerous behaviors, feelings of emptiness, highly changeable moods, and a fear of abandonment. All of these symptoms might seem similar to our perceptions of bipolar disorder. In this case, self-diagnosing mental illness can be dangerous and is far from a valid approach. The treatment for bipolar disorder is way different from the treatment for borderline personality disorder.


You might also think you have a mental illness when there’s a physical cause for your symptoms.


This is explained well in this article by Srini Pillay M.D, The Dangers of Self-Diagnosis: how self-diagnosis can lead you down the wrong path.


"One of the greatest dangers of self-diagnosis in psychological syndromes is that you may miss a medical disease that masquerades as a psychiatric syndrome. Thus, if you have panic disorder, you may miss the diagnosis of hyperthyroidism or an irregular heartbeat. 


Even more serious is the fact that some brain tumors may present with changes in personality or psychosis or even depression.

If you assume you have depression and treat it with an over-the-counter preparation, you may completely miss a medical syndrome. Even if you do not want conventional treatment for depression, you may want conventional treatment for a brain tumor."


In this case, trying coping methods for panic disorder or depression will be futile when you need some kind of physical treatment to help you.


This can be physically dangerous and might discourage you from seeking treatment.


One of the greatest dangers of self-diagnosis in psychological syndromes is that you may miss a medical disease that masquerades as a psychiatric syndrome.

Srini Pillay M.D.

A self diagnosis without support can make you feel awful

For those who tend to obsess over our health and our symptoms, self-diagnosis can be a ticket to panic city. This is primarily the case when you use the internet to diagnose yourself.


This is because there’s a lot of information online about mental health and mental illnesses. This information can be helpful but can also be challenging to navigate.


For example, suppose you have a personality disorder like borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder. In that case, you might realize that these mental illnesses get a lot of hate and stigma – even in mental health communities.


Reading about these misconceptions can make you feel awful. Without the guidance of a trained medical professional, you might struggle with self-acceptance.

If you’re diagnosed with a mental illness but don’t know what the next step is, you can feel hopeless. 


Additionally, it’s important to remember that diagnosis is clearly not the end goal of therapy. The purpose of treatment is healing, and you might need professional guidance to achieve that outcome.


Of course, suppose you’re diagnosed by a medical professional. In that case, there’s never a guarantee that they will be able to provide you with some support- but they likely will. If you self-diagnose your mental illness, you will probably be left without the help and guidance of a medical professional.


Those concerns are all really valid and essential.  And we must keep them in mind when approaching the question: is self diagnosis valid?


That said, there are lots of reasons why people decide to self-diagnose regardless – and there are lots of reasons why self-diagnosis is valid and valuable. And people who are staunchly anti-self diagnosis often don’t consider these points.


So here are a few reasons why self-diagnosis might be helpful for some people, especially those who are marginalized.

Self-diagnosis can help marginalized people discuss their experiences

In many ways, professional diagnoses are usually only available for the privileged.


That’s because most marginalized people seldom have access to compassionate, comprehensive, professional mental healthcare.


It’s difficult to access if you don’t have money to pay for healthcare, if you can’t travel far because you don’t have reliable access to transportation, or if you’re queer or trans or intersex and can’t find a therapist that is accepting of your identities.


Finding a therapist who isn’t bigoted against us is a challenge.


For this reason, being judgmental towards people who have self-diagnosed – or implying that we’re not really mentally ill – often ends up hurting the most marginalized people.

While I’ll readily admit that receiving a “formal” or “professional” diagnosis is more ideal than self-diagnosing, these perspectives fail to acknowledge how difficult it is to get professionally diagnosed. Diagnosis is not accessible.

​Anuksha S. Wickramasinghe

Self diagnosis can help us accept our mental illness

Something really fantastic happened when I accepted that I had PTSD. My mentality switched from 'There's something severely wrong with me, and I'm a bad person' to 'I have an illness, and I need help.'


When I had flashbacks, I started to realize that they were a result of my trauma and not a result of me being silly. I wasn't simply hung up on something that happened years before; I had a mental illness as a result of my trauma.


Similarly, knowing I was depressed made me realize I didn't simply need to "be positive" in order to overcome my chronic feelings of sadness and emptiness. Knowing I had anxiety made me realize I didn't need to "just stop worrying and relax," but that I needed a holistic, multi-pronged approach to treating my condition.


In other words, I stopped viewing myself as a failure and started trying to heal.


Would I have been able to reach that level of acceptance if I waited around for a diagnosis and not self-diagnosed myself? I'm not sure. But I do know that accepting my mental illness was something I had to do before I could truly love myself.


For many people, realizing you have a mental illness is a relief. It's a step towards self-acceptance and thus a step towards healing. It helps us realize that we need to find treatment, support, and resources instead of simply engaging in self-hatred.


And if self-diagnosis is what we need to do in order to find that acceptance, we should be welcoming and kind towards those who self-diagnose.

If self-diagnosis is what we need to do in order to find that acceptance, we should be welcoming and kind towards those who self-diagnose.

Self-diagnosis helps people find community and resources

Self-diagnosing enables us to reach out to other folks who have mental illnesses; we can form a community where we support one another and exchange management tips and resources.


Once you self-diagnose an anxiety disorder, for example, you might Google “tips for dealing with work pressure when you have an anxiety disorder” or “how to explain my anxiety disorder to a loved one.”


You might also find and join anxiety support groups – online or offline – which can help you feel less alone.


Battling mental illnesses can be draining and isolating. Having a community of some sort can be super valuable and healing.


It will help us feel less like outsiders and more like we belong.

Self-diagnosis is existentially helpful, helping individuals develop self-understanding and for helping navigate their environments.

Robert Chapman Ph.D.

So, is self diagnosis valid?

Is self-diagnosing valid? Naturally, there isn’t a straightforward answer to this question.


But in a world where mental health care is inaccessible for many, it’s pretty understandable why folks try to self-diagnose themselves.


The best we can do is be welcoming and understanding towards self-diagnosed mentally ill people while being aware of the downsides and risks of self-diagnosis.

Is self diagnosis valid when it comes to mental illness? was originally published on Everyday Feminism

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Article by
Sian Ferguson

Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. As someone with multiple anxiety disorders, she’s passionate about using her writing skills to educate and empower readers. She believes that words have the power to change minds, hearts, and lives.

Caption:

"While I’ll readily admit that receiving a 'formal' or 'professional' diagnosis is more ideal than self-diagnosing, these perspectives fail to acknowledge how difficult it is to get professionally diagnosed. Diagnosis is not accessible." ​Anuksha S. Wickramasinghe | Photo ©Victoria Chudinova / Adobe Stock

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