The Dangers of Self Diagnosing Mental Illness Online
As per the World Health Organization, mental health problems afflict approximately 20 per cent of our population. This means, more than one in five people have mental health concerns. However, it is still something that’s heavily stigmatised in our society.“I can’t go to a psychiatrist; I’m not crazy,” is a common sentiment that is voiced by people. They fear being perceived as ‘mentally weak’, preventing us from discussing our mental health concerns with friends and family, further reducing our knowledge of sources for help. This is why people are increasingly turning to the internet to help understand their mental distress along with the treatment.
Google provides a diagnosis that is freely available and avoids a trip to the doctor, making it an attractive option, especially when it comes to mental health issues.
I met Nisha* a month ago when came into my clinic, pushing for a ‘quick 5-minutes’. She told me that she had been having frequent mood swings – often being happy, sad or angry in the same day. An online search with these symptoms told her she had bipolar disorder and needed help for the same. She had looked up the treatment online, its side effects and knew which medication would suit her best. However, she needed a doctor’s prescription as the pharmacy wouldn’t give her the medication without it. She didn’t want an assessment or a treatment plan… just a prescription. After spending some time to understand her symptoms, it became clear that she had a borderline personality disorder, something that also causes mood swings, which needs help through different psychological therapies rather than medication alone. Had the focus been on her self-diagnosed bipolar disorder, she would have been on unnecessary medication, which would probably not help her and cause problematic side effects later on.
With easy access to information on Google, the temptation for people to reach their own conclusions about their illness is strong. Timelines are often important in mental health diagnosis as well. Most symptoms for a mental illness are subjective and not black and white. The internet cannot safely assess the severity of the mental health condition or make an adequate risk assessment, and often the gravity of the situation is understood only after unfortunate events like suicide attempts or self-harm.
Generic content vs custom diagnosis
Image Credit: https://www.bphope.com/conspiracy-of-silence-when-the-psychiatrist-has-bp/
The internet has made it available to take online tests that help one determine if they are depressed or facing any other mental health issues. However, what they fail to realize is that a simple Google search is designed to cater to a large audience hence, provides generic information. This information cannot cater to each individual who is different, and is full of various permutations and combinations as a personality. Understanding and diagnosing a patient with a mental illness requires a deeper understanding of the patient. Doctors provide personalization, professionalism and a human element which AI driven content lacks. There’s a lot of well-packaged misinformation online and following it can be dangerous.
Some mental health problems might not seem like problems to the individual, but can cause a lot of distress to him and his family. For example, with schizophrenia, a person may not think that they are delusional and may not think to report paranoid symptoms. Many personality disorders are not reported since they are usually problematic to other people. Sometimes a person may be in denial or suppress some painful memories that often help mental health professionals understand and diagnose patients.
Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse
In the case of Nisha- she had been sexually abused as a child on a couple of occasions, and memories of this event would often color her interactions with men, leading her to feel irrationally angry and anxious even after harmless interactions with them. It was important to address this past childhood trauma to help improve her mental health, but this was not something that she could put into a Google search bar. Face to face professional interaction helped understand the nuances of her mental health concerns and allowing us to come up with a more holistic plan on how to help her.
Internet: A catalyst to mental illness?
Our brains are more sensitive to any negative news for survival purposes. This is why we tend to think of the worst case scenarios. However, this can cause a great deal of distress and anxiety in users who believe that they have an incurable, serious illness. This condition is termed as Cyberchondria, which is the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptoms based on review of search results and literature online.
Another problem in the self-diagnosis of psychological diseases is that a person may miss a medical disease that impersonates a psychiatric syndrome. Doctors frequently come across people who have been self-medicating for panic attacks when they actually have thyroid problems or asthma. Sometimes feeling tired easily, body aches, and not being able to focus is believed to be due to depression, but it can also be underlying anaemia or vitamin deficiencies. In such situations, the underlying medical condition gets missed ensuing medical complications which might worsen matters with incorrect treatment.
Who can you really rely on?
Doctors are trained to be able to tell us what is wrong with us by knowing to ask us the right questions. They are qualified give us guidance so that we can improve our mental health. The patient’s lack of knowledge in the subject matter fails them from understanding if we are worsening the situation or not, especially if they are taking medication recommended on the internet. One might feel like health is improving, but fail to understand the side-effects caused by the medication, creating new problems for themselves.
Today, all doctors are prepared to respond to a situation where the patients or their family members question their medical advice or treatments because of something they’ve read, and who choose to follow AI search algorithms and faceless strangers on the internet, just because a well-designed website had good reviews. Patients are constantly crosschecking the doctor’s diagnosis by providing their ‘expert opinion’ found by consulting online websites, dismissing their experience and professional expertise.
The Doctor, Patient and Google Trio
While it is a positive sign that more people are being actively involved in their health, web diagnosis practices need to be altered. Reliability of the source or verifying the source with their doctor would provide accurate answers rather than a skewed blanket Google search results. Over time, patients would be able to create a reliable list of sources that they can refer to before visiting their doctor.
The internet is a great source of information, but without the right question, getting to the right answer is extremely unlikely. Mental health problems originate from the brain, which most of us would agree is the most important organ we have. Mental health professionals understand the workings of the brain and can give a person focused and personalized therapeutic help. Give them a chance to help you.