With the internet at our fingertips, more and more of us are turning to online resources to diagnose ourselves with various mental illnesses, and it’s time we thought about the implications of this for our understanding of mental health.

Whether you’re using Buzzfeed or an NHS quiz, no online assessment is enough to fully determine what’s happening in your head, and are not intended to replace a consultation with a professional. Let’s flashback to when I was 13 and upset about school, I did an online NHS quiz to see if I had depression, and to no surprise, I came out with a high score. In a recent study into self-diagnosis and online symptom checkers, Harvard researchers determined only 34% of online assessments gave the correct diagnosis first time around. Now that I am actually depressed, I can’t help but wonder at 13-year-old me’s determination to have something clinically wrong with my brain.

We all like playing the victim to an extent, and the romanticisation of mental health has only made this worse. Here is something that can’t be seen by anyone else but can make you feel so weak you can only lie in bed all day, with the weight of the world on your shoulders. Often we find ourselves drawn to specific issues — such as depression — due to romanticised examples like the so-called Japanese suicide forest, and this narrows our search to a false diagnosis. Francesca Di Marco, author of Suicide in Twentieth-Century Japan, argues it’s this romanticisation of mental illness that creates “a myth out of what actually should be seen as a pathology”. By incorrectly believing you are experiencing mental health issues, you are inadvertently undermining those who do and underestimating the true experience of living with a mental illness. False diagnoses reduce the conversation around mental health.

A false self-diagnosis does not necessarily mean you are without mental health issues, just that a website doesn’t have the scope of knowledge, or experience, held by a trained human being.

Take the Obsessive Compulsive Inventory (OCI), for example. The OCI is a well respected, genuine assessment for OCD used by institutions like the NHS in the UK. By the inventory’s criteria, anyone with a score over 42 has OCD, yet a close friend took the assessment and got a score of 86. This friend does not have OCD, he has Asperger Syndrome and was diagnosed by a professional when he was 4. Asperger’s is a condition with many similarities to OCD, but is ultimately very different. Self-diagnosis, using even a well-respected assessment, can lead to false conclusions and, therefore, inappropriate forms of treatment.

While there can be barriers such as racial discrimination, or economic disadvantage, in the way of achieving a full profession diagnosis, seeking professional help is a necessary element of self-care. Professional help — including medication, therapy and advice — doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming thanks to the growing range of helplines and charities around the globe. You do not need a full professional diagnosis to go beyond a self-diagnosis, as seeking advice and counsel can help progress your awareness of mental ailments, and lead you to a more accurate conclusion.

Mental health issues are an entirely legitimate form of disability, and if you have any concerns regarding your own mental health you should, of course, try to find a way to support yourself. If you suspect you have a mental health condition, and wish for further advice and support, follow these steps to reach an accurate diagnosis that will enable you to get the best possible treatment.

  • Research – just because your entire diagnosis shouldn’t be based on an online assessment, doesn’t mean you should ignore the internet — it will be one of your most useful tools. Try to use genuine medical websites wherever possible, and compare your symptoms to a variety of conditions, being 100% honest with yourself the entire way through.
  • Seek Advice – speak to a doctor and/or therapist if possible. If you are a student, either at school or university, you are entitled to free mental health services and should make full use of these. In the UK, all mental health issues can be taken up with your GP and the NHS offer free counseling services. If you are unable to contact a doctor, connect with a charity as most employ professionally trained staff who you can speak to over the phone.
  • Practical Treatment – many consultants will offer similar advice if you are in the early stages of a mental illness; to improve your diet and exercise habits, seek a form of verbal therapy, and to communicate with your close friends and family that you need their support. Medication should be a last resort, as many drugs have side effects of their own.

Overall, we need to be able to have an open and honest conversation about mental health. That starts by looking past the romanticisation of issues like depression, being honest with ourselves, and turning to professional support to use an effective form of treatment.

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