While doctors have historically cautioned against self-diagnosis, there’s a growing online debate surrounding the gatekeeping of mental illness. While self-diagnosis can certainly have its downsides, many argue that it is the only available course of action for those who live in a country without access to free healthcare. As a result, some U.S. citizens have turned to self-diagnosis so they can access a community of similar people with resources that may benefit them.

With the increase of self-diagnosis though, there is also an increase in the amount of gatekeeping. Gatekeeping happens when those who have a professional diagnosis or healthcare professionals themselves limit access to resources or deny those who are seeking help for a self-diagnosed mental illness. In the online community, this frequently happens when strangers feel the need to label other people’s mental health as valid or invalid. This occurrence is one that many people find condescending and rude as the invalidator is a complete stranger. This type of person has no intimate knowledge of the person’s mental health or life, yet is someone who feels the need to interject themselves into the personal feelings and identity of someone else.

Why are people turning to self-diagnosis?

With the current barriers blocking everyday Americans from accessing a professional diagnosis, it is no surprise that so many people are using the growing amount of online resources to diagnose themselves. According to Mental Health America, 22.3% of adults with a mental illness were not able to receive the treatment they needed in 2020. This is due to several different personal and systemic factors.

  1. Lack of Insurance: 10.3% of adults with a mental illness do not have insurance. Additionally, having insurance doesn’t guarantee access to treatment.
  2. High Treatment Costs: 29.4% of adults with a mental illness could not access doctors because of cost.
  3. Mental Health Provider Availability: With a shortage of mental health providers, many rural areas of the country are suffering. In fact, more than half the counties in the U.S. had 0 psychiatrists in 2016.
  4. Misdiagnosis: According to one study, misdiagnosis rates range from 65.9% for major depressive disorder, 92.7% for bipolar disorder, 85.8% for panic disorder, 71.0% for generalized anxiety disorder, and 97.8% for social anxiety disorder.
  5. Lack of Trust: Many minority groups, especially members of the BIPOC community, do not trust medical professionals to have their best interests in mind and are less likely to seek treatment. There is also a significant amount of gender bias in the medical community.

What are the pros and cons of self-diagnosis?

There are several pros and cons when it comes to self-diagnosing a mental illness. While the medical community encourages everyone to seek a professional diagnosis, clearly that is not always possible. Below are some of the ways that self-diagnosis can both benefit and harm those looking for help.

Pros of self-diagnosis

  1. Community: Self-diagnosis of a mental illness can lead to a community of people who share similar experiences and challenges. According to the NAMI, having a community can help with a person’s sense of belonging, support, and purpose.
  2. Self Understanding: You know your body better than anybody else. Reading about different mental illnesses and finding personal connections to them can help you explore what you are feeling. It is important to follow your instincts and trust your gut. Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health services at Oxford, expands on this idea in her tweet:
Professor Trisha Greenhalgh's tweet about self- diagnosis and mental illness
Professor Trisha Greenhalgh’s tweet about self-diagnosis and advocacy

Cons of self-diagnosis

  1. Lack of Professional Resources: Because a self-diagnosis is not supported by a medical provider, many people experiencing mental illness are not able to access professional resources and accommodations. Whether it’s work or school, many establishments require proof of diagnosis from a doctor before providing any type of help.
  2. Objectivity: It can also be difficult to be objective when people are evaluating their own mental state and symptoms. For some, it may be hard to spot certain symptoms without the perspective of an outsider or medical provider.

Final thoughts

This article is meant to provide every reader with timely available information about self-diagnosis and mental illness. While self-diagnosis is not a perfect solution, it can help those who are facing healthcare barriers and are longing for a sense of belonging and inner peace. There is absolutely no shame in finding an online community that supports your mental health progress.

Try not to pay any attention to the online strangers who might gatekeep your health. These strangers thrive on your self-doubt and feel powerful telling others who is “allowed” in certain communities. They may even try to gaslight you and invalidate your feelings. Always remember, though, that your feelings are valid and it’s okay to block those who hinder your health.

It is important to note, however, that this is not a license to flippantly use mental illness in casual conversation. For example, if you believe that you have depression, then it’s okay to use language associated with the diagnosis. However, if you don’t suffer from depression but use it as a way to describe a non-debilitating sadness, then it could be considered a misrepresentation of the actual illness. Whether self-diagnosed or professionally, those who have depression or identify as neurodivergent may feel invalidated hearing neurotypical people simultaneously glamorize and minimize mental illness.

In a perfect world, everyone would have equal access to outstanding care and professional help. However, this world is not perfect, and finding proper resources and help outside of typical avenues of care should be normalized. More importantly, no one should ever be prevented from trying to heal themselves through self-exploration and advocacy.

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