Destigmatization Takes a Dangerous Turn: The Age of TikTok Self-Diagnosis

By Claire Wilson

October 23, 2023

Twenty years ago, the stigma surrounding mental health was significantly different than it is today. Most mental disorders were heavily stigmatized and kept  A 2021 study conducted by professors at the University of Indiana and Pennsylvania State University found, “a significant decrease in public stigma” since 1996. While at first glance, it appears that society has made significant strides in acceptance and compassion towards those with mental disorders, the truth is much darker. 

TikTok has become an increasingly popular way of getting information, especially for our generation. However, misinformation about mental health is rampant on Tiktok and other social media platforms. This has led to a disturbing trend of self-diagnosing mental disorders, especially among Gen Z. Misinformation is extremely easy to spread on Tiktok because anyone can post a video. Videos made by licensed psychologists are mixed in with videos made by non-professionals, some who have the disorder they are talking about, and some who are simply faking it.

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  TikTok mental health influencers usually don't go into depth in their videos to avoid losing the interest of their short attention spanned audience. The result is typically something along the lines of a thirty second clip of the creator dancing to whatever song is trending, while vague symptoms that could apply to a hundred disorders flash across the screen. Anyone with half a brain cell not yet fried by TikTok can see the problem with this type of video. So-called “symptoms” as general as “always listening to music,” “sticking to routines,” “making show/movie references,” and even personality traits as general as “creativity” and “independence” are all listed as signs of autism on these idiotic videos. 

Many of these videos portray their respective disorders as fun and quirky, often in the form of  “day in the life” videos, which curiously leave out almost all the struggles of their disorder. A mom with ADHD makes coffee in a fancy Keurig machine, cleans her living room in a satisfying before and after time lapse clip, and uses a checklist to stay on track, all with a few “I’m overwhelmed” and “I’m tired” moments sprinkled in for effect. A person with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) switches alters on camera with the theatrics of a Broadway musical. No wonder Gen Z is obsessed with collecting mental disorders with the same zeal as the Pokemon cards of their youth. 

Instead of influencers filming the devastating reality of their disorders with complete honesty, we see a skewed version of it. The good parts are romanticized, while the bad parts are reduced to a generic list of symptoms. These symptoms are so generic that almost anyone can find a way to relate to them, making it incredibly easy for young people to mistakenly believe they are affected by a certain disorder. 

A San Luis Obispo based therapist, who requested to remain anonymous, explains, “experiencing anxiety doesn't necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder. I think everyone can have traits and characteristics that show up in autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, all of us can experience a lot of these things. It's to what extent you experience it, how it affects your life, things like that are when it goes to a level of disorder or diagnosis.”

So why are so many teens choosing to self diagnose instead of seeking professional advice? For one thing, getting a diagnosis can be incredibly expensive. An evaluation costs thousands of dollars, and in California, most testing psychologists and neuropsychologists don’t accept insurance. Although this explains the trend of self diagnosing to an extent, it still doesn’t explain why so many teens are faking mental disorders. 

There has never been more pressure on any generation of teens as there is today. Gen Z is dealing with pressure to succeed academically and socially, while trying to navigate the world of social media, AI, climate anxiety, war, and political polarization. Self diagnosing a mental disorder is an easy way for a teen to lower their own expectations and those of others, and provides a shorthand way to explain themselves. It’s a way to find a community of like-minded people and a way to categorize and label complicated emotional experiences. 

“I think what everyone is looking for is ‘help explain my suffering',” says the therapist, “because being human involves suffering. So that's when we come up with these diagnoses that aren't necessarily accurate. Some of it is that the world, society, marketing, whatever it is, these other things are out in the world that sell a story that life is supposed to be good, and when it's not it means you're doing something wrong. Everyone's got a story about suffering and it doesn't mean they're doing something wrong. It's part of the human experience.” 

Therapists have also noticed a difference in the way their patients approach their mental health. Instead of coming to a psychologist with questions about things they have experienced, many patients are coming in with a specific diagnosis in mind. The therapist says, “I have experienced people coming in with an idea of a diagnosis and some are accurate and some are not accurate." 

This is a complicated issue, and it’s affecting people with serious mental health conditions. Having to sift through garbage mental health advice and glamorized videos about one's disorder is extremely disheartening and frustrating for people with these disorders. Not only does it make it harder to find reputable and helpful content, but it also makes it almost impossible to find a supportive community free from people faking disorders for clout. Outside of social media, it's becoming harder and harder for people to get therapy, testing, and other mental health resources because of long waitlists full of people who think they might have a disorder based on what they’ve seen online. 

The extreme version of mental health acceptance that has materialized in recent years is creating more problems than many realize. Instead of spreading awareness and showing the truth about mental disorders, mental health influencers have turned serious conditions into glamorized trends and quirky personality traits, instead of something to be healed with professional support. Gen Z is obsessed with finding a diagnosis as a way to find meaning in the complex modern world we live in, and it’s coming with some devastating consequences. 

For more information:

Deconstructing TikTok Videos on Mental Health: Cross-sectional, Descriptive Content Analysis

Teens are using social media to diagnose themselves with ADHD, autism and more. Parents are alarmed | CNN Business  

Trends in Public Stigma of Mental Illness in the US, 1996-2018 - PMC 

Teens Turn to TikTok in Search of a Mental Health Diagnosis