Written by Lauren Geall
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.
The explosion in mental health content on social media is great to see – but is the lack of nuance encouraging too many people to self-diagnose? Stylist investigates.
When was the last time you stumbled upon an Instagram post that made you wonder whether you might be burnt out or diagnosed yourself with high-functioning anxiety after watching a TikTok? If you’ve been on social media at all recently, it probably hasn’t been long.
In the age of peak self-awareness, social media content about mental health and emotional wellbeing is dominating our feeds more than ever before. On Instagram alone, the hashtag #MentalHealth has over 40 million posts, and on TikTok, there are thousands of videos covering everything from ADHD to burnout. And while these kinds of posts have been around for a while, the last couple of years have seen an explosion in ‘signs of’ posts and explainer videos, thanks largely due to the rise in demand for wellbeing content triggered by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
In some ways, this is a good thing – talking about our mental health and sharing tips on how to cope is a great way to raise awareness – but it can also have its downsides, too.
While a lot of the content is being produced by experts (and therefore can be incredibly helpful), there’s also a lot of advice being posted and shared by people without a psychiatric background. This content tends to lack nuance – for example, by failing to point out, like an expert would, that one symptom is not indicative of an entire disorder – and as such, it has the potential to lead people to self-diagnose.
I, for one, have fallen into this trap. Despite having a pretty good idea of where my mental and emotional health stands, these kinds of posts still manage to make me wonder about what’s really going on in my head. One moment, I’m scrolling through my feed, and the next, I’m questioning whether something I did last Wednesday could be a sign of ADHD or wondering whether my constant tiredness really could be a sign of depression.
And these thoughts don’t just arise when I’m on social media, either. Whether I’m talking to friends, taking the Tube to work or going for a run, I keep finding myself analysing the different thoughts and feelings that pass through my head for signs that something is wrong or needs work.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with self-optimisation, but this has gone beyond that. If I find myself feeling overwhelmed, stressed or tired, I start to obsess over what’s wrong and what I can do to fix it – and I can’t seem to stop.
There is, of course, a big difference between worrying about being too emotional and diagnosing yourself with OCD or anxiety without seeking help from a doctor. But still, by ‘simplifying’ mental and emotional wellbeing to a few bullet points on social media, I’m worried some of this content could be setting a dangerous precedent. So, should we be rethinking our relationship with it?
“We’ve come such a long way from the stigmatisation of mental health issues to now discussing whether there is ‘too much’ information concerning psychological and emotional wellbeing available – so I think we should first acknowledge how much good work has been done to change this,” says Dr Meg Arroll, a chartered psychologist, scientist and author.
“However, this does not address the impact some content can have on an individual. We already live in a culture of self-diagnosis (who hasn’t consulted Dr Google?), but just like plugging symptoms into a search engine, it can be hard to know which ‘signs of XX’ posts are accurate.”
Dr Arroll continues: “They can also encourage those who are experiencing anxious thoughts or low mood to maintain unhelpful thought patterns and behaviours – such as catastrophising and avoidance – when viewing these posts repeatedly.”
As Dr Arroll rightly highlights, talking about mental health and wellbeing on social media can certainly be a good thing, but it’s important that we take these posts with a pinch of salt. It’s OK for people without professional qualifications to talk about their experiences online (that’s what social media is for, after all), but we should remember that everyone’s situation is different.
Diagnosing yourself from the information in a 60-second video – and using tips from social media to try to deal with whatever you’re going through – may feel easier than speaking to a GP or paying for therapy, but it can also be an incredibly slippery slope that has the potential to make things worse.
“It’s far too reductionist to say this phenomenon is entirely bad or good, but the issue is that the subject matter will be targeted at people who may already be struggling, and hence can constitute easy and attractive clickbait,” Arroll explains.
“The information is only useful if someone can then access services and has the knowledge and support to do this – otherwise, self-diagnosis can be harmful, leading to further or worsening symptoms of mental health conditions.”
In this way, while it can be tempting to question whether you’ve got something ‘wrong’ with you after a scroll through social media, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective. Social media can be a wonderful tool that raises awareness of under-researched conditions – the number of women who have credited TikTok with helping them get an ADHD diagnosis is a prime example – but it’s important to supplement this kind of advice with professional support.
It’s also important to remember that you probably don’t have every condition under the sun – even though social media might make you feel like you do – and that you should pay attention to whether the information you’re taking in has been backed by a licensed professional.
There are myriad reasons why people feel upset, tired or worried – and just because a few of the signs listed on an Instagram post by an unverified account resonate with you, doesn’t mean you have to rethink everything you thought you knew about yourself.
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