Self-diagnoses can be problematic, but unfortunately, for some, it’s the most accessible option
Hassan Merali // Contributor
Logan David // Illustrator
“I’m kind of OCD about keeping my room clean.” The average person may not see any problem with a remark like this, but it’s infuriating for someone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). While many people who have OCD do engage in compulsive cleaning, a preference for cleanliness is not equivalent to the anxiety-inducing obsessions and exhausting compulsive rituals that come with OCD.
For people who have been clinically diagnosed with OCD, or any mental illness for that matter, it can be frustrating to hear people flippantly use these terms in casual conversation. As advocates and public health professionals break down long-standing stigmas about openly discussing mental health, it’s becoming more and more common to hear people talk about their mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression.
One reason this is becoming more common is that rates of anxiety and depression are being reported among young people. This is happening because of advances in medicine, the fight against stigma around suffering from and seeking treatment for mental illness, and societal factors like precarious work and climate change. Additionally, most mental health issues present themselves before the age of 25, which is also around the same time that many young people enter the post-secondary system. On top of that, Millennials and Gen Z are talking about mental health more than previous generations.
This is a positive development, but as people feel more liberated to discuss their mental health issues, labels like ‘anxiety,’ ‘depression,’ and ‘ADHD’ are thrown around more liberally. The use of these labels by people who haven’t been clinically diagnosed can be troubling for those who have. For example, it can be aggravating for someone who has sought treatment for ADHD to hear a friend say, “I’ve never been to a doctor, but I definitely have ADHD; I have such a hard time concentrating and sitting still.” ADHD isn’t all bouncy legs and switching browser tabs; it’s an impairment of executive functioning that can lead to many different things not typically associated with ADHD, like addiction and substance abuse, financial difficulties, low self-esteem, and hyperfixation.
Although it may feel justified to lash out and tell people who seemingly toss around diagnostic labels like they’re trendy slang to cut it out unless a doctor has given it to them, it’s absolutely not. There are many reasons that someone with mental illness might not have been diagnosed by a doctor—for one thing, there are varying degrees of severity for every illness, including those affecting the brain. Just because someone’s anxiety hasn’t interfered with their life enough to send them to a doctor doesn’t mean they don’t suffer from anxiety.
Not everybody who needs medical help has access to the resources to get it. In Canada’s so-called “universal” healthcare system, a mental health professional’s costs are not automatically covered. For a visit to be covered, patients have to get a referral from a doctor, and if they do get one, they’ll likely be waiting months or even years for an appointment. Some people get lucky and have family doctors who can help treat mental health issues, but many family doctors aren’t capable or competent in treating mental health issues. There are also the many societal barriers that extend into healthcare (like racism, language, sexism, etc.) that make it harder for people to get their symptoms taken seriously by medical professionals—just ask some of the women and 2SLGBTQIA+ people in your life how many times a doctor has dismissed their pain. There’s also the incredible amount of stigma remaining around seeking treatment for mental health issues, not to mention the difficulty of navigating the maze that is mental health care in Canada.
For those who can’t—or prefer not to—seek help from a medical professional, self-learning and personal research can be empowering. Reading the accounts of people who have documented their struggles can help connect shared experiences and the clinical language that the medical profession uses to reach diagnostic conclusions. To be clear, reading on WebMD and Reddit forums is not a safe or accurate way to reach a diagnosis—but for some, it’s more accessible than a visit to a doctor.
Self-diagnoses are a mixed bag. On the one hand, a visit to a physician isn’t necessary for someone to suffer from an illness—part of the function of a diagnosis is to gain a signifier to explain to others what we experience on a daily basis. On the other hand, a self-diagnosis is an easy way to mistake symptoms caused by other factors with having an illness that you may not have. It also can confuse and offend people when you improperly identify with a medical condition that brings them a lot of pain and distress.
I completely understand the impulse for people who have been clinically diagnosed with a mental illness to challenge the apparent dilution of diagnostic labels by those casually, but we shouldn’t. In the grand scheme of things, it’s unfair and wrong. Not everyone can get a formal diagnosis from a doctor, and until everyone has the option to, we shouldn’t be policing the way others tell us about what they experience.