The internet is a gold mine of easily accessible information and resources about previously “taboo” topics. This open access to new information is undoubtedly beneficial for our society as a whole, but it opens doors for many questions regarding what to do with that information. In regards to mental illness and other cognitive disorders, there is often debate about the validity of self-diagnosis.
In most discussions of self-diagnosis, the term “self-advocacy” makes an appearance. Self-advocacy involves educating yourself on your symptoms and behaviors in regards to your health. It involves meeting with a doctor and advocating for yourself during your healthcare. Self-diagnosis is simply going a step further from research and speculation towards labeling your behavior and experiences.
Frankly, speculating you have a disorder is essentially diagnosing yourself. We all self-diagnose at some point, from simple things like a cold; or more complex issues like realizing you may need therapy. Rarely does one go to a therapist without having a sense that something is wrong, and typically you realize you have the flu before visiting a doctor. Professional diagnosis simply confirms what you already know.
There is a difference between people who self-diagnose as a cop-out for their behavior and those who self-diagnose out of necessity. Within this debate of self-diagnosis verses self-advocacy, we are disregarding those who decide to say they have bipolar disorder in order to abuse their family or that they have anxiety to seem “quirky." Everyone agrees that their “diagnosis” is not valid, and their involvement in all this only further stigmatizes disorders in general. The general public tends to discriminate against illness and disability, and refuse to acknowledge their existence without “proof”; this “proof” coming from a professional diagnosis.
Self-advocacy does not take into account that you may not have a doctor to whom you can advocate. Those who have access to a doctor may experience issues due to their race, gender, social class, and financial standing. Even when seeking a diagnosis, some people are denied based on these setbacks. Doctors, unfortunately, are not perfect people, and some may be prejudiced and put their personal beliefs and biases before the health of their patient.
Children and teenagers may not be able to receive any sort of formal diagnosis due to unsupportive or abusive caregivers. Obvious signs of mental illness may not be taken seriously by parents and teachers due to widespread misconceptions about mental illness and other disorders. For example, boys are often ignored when signs of emotional disorders take place and are instead told to “man up”. Teenage girls may be told that “it’s just hormones” and often seen as “over exaggerating”; only to find out as an adult that they were denied an opportunity to receive help. This biased lack of diagnosis occurs in actual medical care, in instances like an appendix rupture being diagnosed as cramps.
Even without these roadblocks, some may find it unnecessary to receive a formal diagnosis. For example, if someone has ADHD but does not need accommodations, a formal diagnosis may not be necessary for that individual. Remember, medical choices like receiving a diagnosis are up to the personal discretion of the individual, but it does not make their disorder any less real.
Educated self-diagnosis does not hurt anyone. Doctors with the best intentions can misdiagnose in the same way a self-diagnosed person could. The act of diagnosing oneself can potentially become a problem when people seek out treatment, but that is not why most self-diagnose. In order to receive drugs or therapy, someone who self-diagnosed would need a professional diagnosis to receive that treatment. This leads to the question: Why would someone self-diagnose if they cannot access treatment?
Living with a disorder does in fact exist outside of the medical context. Disorders do not become real only when diagnosed by a professional. Those without access to a diagnosis still have the disorder, and a self-diagnosis can help them cope. A diagnosis is simply an explanation for why you are who you are. Labeling yourself with a disorder or illness can help you understand your actions and feelings and learn to cope with your disorder. It enables you to find a community of people who understand and support you. Self-diagnosis leads to you making sense of yourself.
Many people may not understand how diagnosis actually occurs in a professional setting. Mostly, you fill out a checklist or questionnaire. They often simply describe symptoms and ask if you relate. All of these resources can be found online, the only difference being the hefty bill you receive at the doctors. While they do have valuable expertise and training, medical professionals are not magic genies who know everything about everyone’s mental state.
Self-diagnosis in no way is meant to undermine professional diagnosis, and self-advocacy is definitely something everyone should engage in while receiving healthcare. Insisting on a professional diagnosis from people who have mental illness or other disorders, however, disregards the challenges that those people face in receiving said diagnosis. Those who make an educated, truthful self-diagnosis are no less than one who received a professional one. Implying so puts even more pressure on those who need and deserve our support, rather than our judgement.