Neuronal News: What TikTok’s self-diagnosis trend misses about mental health

A drawing of a brain above a black background with green, blue, and yellow “glitching” patterns on it. A purple mouse pointer clicks on the brain.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

Self-diagnosis is trending, with social media deemed the “psychiatrist’s couch” of Gen Z. Countless posts suggest that almost any mental experience is a sign of a disorder. On Instagram, for example, 294,000 posts fall under #ADHDProblems as of March 5, 2023.

A popular video of Fiona Apple’s “awkward” acceptance speech at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards posted on Feb. 13, 2023 by an anonymous TikTok user who purports Apple has autism. But no public record exists anywhere regarding her having been diagnosed with it.

Better yet: If you’ve ever been so bored in class that your teacher’s voice blurs out — which is everyone — and you begin to picture things to distract yourself, another popular, anonymous TikTok armchair psychologist claims you have ADHD.

“Unfortunately, there is no cure … please get a psychologist; this isn’t normal,” they state, noting all of us also have “maladaptive daydreaming” which “is not considered a disorder (but it should be).”

And lastly, my personal favorite … This popular TikTok video from Feb. 2, 2023 features a Gen Z influencer lip-syncing to a sped-up Paramore song. He switches in a matter of seconds from throwing his shirt on the ground, to flashing what’s supposed to be a flirtatious smile, to angrily pointing at his viewer, to giving the camera one last quick smile before transitioning to a pose that one is supposed to guess is … a howling werewolf. 

But why is that relevant? The caption reads, “Bipolar hits different,” though he never mentions on any of his platforms whether he’s been diagnosed. And even if he has, his depiction has received criticism in the comments from people who allege that they have received the diagnosis.

Yet even as this trend may help to destigmatize mental illness, we shouldn’t be led to believe that  diagnoses are a key to solving the United States’ mental health crisis. This conclusion takes for granted the impact of social norms and systems on mental health — and how prevailing psychiatric explanations for mental illness have at times unscientifically incorporated prevailing cultural attitudes into a diagnostic framework. 

Here are just a few historical examples that show sometimes the purpose of diagnoses, rather than to empower people, has been to control them. At one point, enslaved people in the United States. who rightfully desired their freedom were once considered to have a mental illness: “drapetomania.” Psychiatrists around the world also influenced their countries’ 20th-century sterilization practices by identifying who was too mentally “unfit” to have children — around 60,000 people in the United States, for example, were victims of this law.

Meanwhile, one current prevailing paradigm for understanding all mental illnesses is through the biomedical model, premised upon the idea that an individual’s biology shares the biggest responsibility for mental illness. 

But it’s not without its critics, as voiced by this neuroscientist in an article published online in December 2022 in an established neuropsychiatry journal.

“Even though such a reductionist model is still frequently encountered in the research and clinical literature, it does reflect an outdated view of biology. Contemporary biology … is also the analysis of the interactions between neurobiological systems and developmental experiences, interpersonal relationship and social context.” 

Mental health interventions on an individual level — brought on by a diagnosis — are necessary, but just as necessary are solutions at a societal level that address the problems creating the mental suffering in the first place. This can be said of any mental illness and does not require biological influences to be discredited. 

This is what Gen Z must understand whenever encountering the deluge of Fiona-Apple-and-maladaptive-daydream-type posts: while they may destigmatize experiences deemed to be a mental illness or disorder, they do not challenge the problematic history that diagnoses are rooted in.

Here’s one example in which diagnoses can be accompanied by a shift in thinking about the societal role of mental health.

Some psychiatrists are reconsidering whether to reclassify borderline personality disorder (BPD) as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder due to its correlation with severe abuse. If the reclassification happens, to end the suffering caused by BPD would entail addressing the disorder’s root cause — the social factors permitting environments where such abuse occurs — on top of individual treatment.

Mental illness is more than just the sum of an individual’s unwell parts. 

The mental health crisis requires collective solutions. While diagnoses may help us identify biological roots of suffering, they have historically neglected societal roots. Lasting change depends on the efforts of community members, policymakers, politicians and researchers from fields outside of medicine, too, to develop comprehensive approaches promoting mental wellness.

Hannah Frasure PO ’24 often sits around pretending to be The Thinker is a philosophy major who began as a neuroscience major.

Facebook Comments