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The dangers of self-diagnosis
by Horsefeathers. October 29th 2012, 05:30 AM

The Dangers of Self-Diagnosis
By Robin (PSY)

“I'm depressed.” This statement may seem straightforward at first, but think about it for a moment. If someone you knew said, “I'm depressed,” what would you conclude? Would you assume that they were merely feeling sad, and that their feelings would go away after a few days? Or would you assume that they were suffering from a chronic mental illness, where their mood was affected by a number of biological and environmental factors? Your conclusion could affect the nature of your advice to that person. For example, if you felt the depression was temporary, you might tell that person to focus on the positive aspects of their life, spend time with friends, and take a day off from everything in order to relax. If you believed that the person suffered from a mental illness, however, you would probably encourage them to see a psychological professional in order to receive therapy and/or medication, if needed.

It's amazing how such a simple statement can lead to so much confusion and uncertainty! Yet despite knowing how easily a statement can be misinterpreted, we are all too eager to make judgments about our family members, friends, partners – and even ourselves. Those of us who suffer or have suffered from mental illness(es) often have to deal with the stigma that comes along with receiving a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and so on. In addition, we may feel we have to “compete” with the occasional friend who claims that they, too, suffer from a mental illness. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of blowing emotions out of proportion, assuming that they suffer from a chronic depressive disorder when what they are really experiencing is just a temporary (and perfectly normal) feeling in response to hormonal changes or life events. Other times, they are on the right track, but are coming to the wrong conclusion before weighing all the possibilities.

Before I elaborate on the dangers of self-diagnosis, I want to provide you with an example of a time when I mis-diagnosed myself! Perhaps you can relate, since nearly everyone has visited websites like WebMD.com or MayoClinic.com in order to identify physical and mental illnesses based on their symptoms. About six months ago, I started having vision problems. I would see flashing lights in my left eye, along with what looked like squiggly worms. After conducting some research online, I came to the conclusion that I was at risk for a retinal detachment – which meant I could lose all vision in my left eye! I made an appointment to see my doctor the following day, but I was so nervous about my vision problems that I couldn't concentrate on schoolwork. When I finally arrived at the doctor's office, I was prepared for the worst-case scenario: surgery, and a full week of recuperation afterward. After meeting with a medical professional, however, I was told that there was nothing wrong with my eye. The flashing lights may have been caused by a number of factors, ranging from excessive caffeine intake to poor sleeping habits. The squiggly worms turned out to be genetic in nature, and nothing to fret over. My doctor offered a few suggestions, along with instructions on what to do in case my vision suddenly worsened again. After an hour-long appointment, all of my questions had been answered, and I was able to go home and study in peace. After one week of improved sleeping habits, my vision returned to normal!

The internet is a wonderful tool that allows us to conduct research, looking up the symptoms for physical and mental illnesses alike; however, a list of symptoms can only take us so far. Mysterious lumps under our skin can be mistaken for cancerous tumors, and sores on the insides of our mouths can be mistaken for sexually transmitted diseases. Oftentimes, physical symptoms can point to multiple diagnoses – and when we fail to consult with a medical professional, we may reach the wrong conclusion. The same thing can happen with mental illnesses.

Let's return to our original statement: “I'm depressed.” Someone who believes they suffer from a major depressive disorder may find various ways to “treat” their depression that aren't very healthy. I once had a friend who claimed they suffered from chronic depression. Because they felt they would never be happy, they turned to alcohol and drugs for relief. For a short amount of time, they could forget about their problems; however, they would always come crashing down afterward, and feel even worse than before. Drinking alcohol and taking drugs never actually solved their problems, and it never led to a lasting sense of happiness. It was just a way to escape. If that friend had seen a psychological professional, they may have discovered the source of their unhappiness and found a way to effectively treat their depression. They could have received support from their family members and friends, as well as attended regular therapy sessions and obtained medication to correct chemical imbalances that may have contributed to their negative mood. Because they chose to diagnose themselves with a depressive disorder, however, they ultimately limited their ability to receive help.

Someone who has erroneously diagnosed themselves may also fall victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if someone were to say, “I'm depressed,” then looked up the symptoms for a major depressive disorder, they may essentially convince themselves that they have a mental illness when they really do not! They may be influenced by the list of symptoms and begin to act differently. If someone believes they suffer from depression, they may feel... well, depressed! And if they feel depressed, their symptoms may become more pronounced, which will only further convince someone that they are suffering from a mental illness. You may have experienced this with physical symptoms. Imagine yourself in a classroom, feeling perfectly healthy. A few minutes later, someone sits next to you and begins coughing incessantly. It's obvious that they have a cold. Suddenly, you feel a tickle in the back of your throat. Your mouth feels dry, and you feel a bit feverish. Could you have caught their cold? Probably not, since the person has only been sitting next to you for a short while. Your mind, however, has begun to play tricks on you, and you may become convinced that you are sick. The same thing can happen with mental illnesses!

Finally, by improperly diagnosing oneself, a person may fail to recognize other symptoms of a genuine mental illness. For example, if a person believes they suffer from a depressive disorder, they may become so focused on their depression that they fail to take into account occasional periods of “mania”. Manic episodes may consist of inflated self-esteem, a decreased need for sleep, and increased goal-directed activity, among other things. Someone with depression may struggle with low self-esteem, feel the need to sleep more often, and fail to complete important tasks such as homework assignments and paying bills. So if a person who diagnosed themselves as “depressed” experienced a period of “mania”, they may conclude that the “mania” is actually “normal”, and how a person should feel and behave when they are “happy”. By reaching such a conclusion, they may fail to consider another possibility: they may actually suffer from bipolar disorder, a mental illness that may be characterized by both depressive AND manic episodes.

So the next time you begin to speculate about a physical or mental illness, whether it be for yourself or someone you know, remember how dangerous it can be to rely on self-diagnosis. Considering various possibilities and conducting research online is perfectly fine, but the danger lies in reaching the wrong conclusion. Therefore, ALWAYS consult a medical or psychological professional, and encourage your loved ones to do the same if they suspect something is wrong.
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