Can TikTok Help You Figure Out Who You Are?

Jessi Gold, MD, MS, an assistant professor and the director of wellness, engagement, and outreach in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, tells Teen Vogue that, as a psychiatrist, she’s a proponent of knowledge being accessible like it is on TikTok.

“It’s important that people get access to information about diagnoses or symptoms,” Gold says. “I think it makes people feel less alone in their experiences.” Even if a diagnosis isn’t exact, Gold says it can still be a helpful experience. “Even if that’s not exactly what’s going on, it feels a lot less isolating if someone else has had that experience.”

For Lauren, 24, that’s exactly what happened.

Lauren went to her doctor with a possible TikTok diagnosis after being shown videos on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In the videos, she watched creators explain facets of her personality that she had previously found inexplicable or innate like her tendency to lose her phone multiple times a day or disassociate in the middle of interactions or feel over-stimulated in everyday interactions. “Throughout my life, I was always labeled as ‘airheaded’ or up in the clouds a bit,” she says. “That was just my personality.”

She wanted to be careful not to jump to conclusions, so she consulted an expert. Lauren’s psychiatrist diagnosed her with severe generalized anxiety disorder and explained that many of the symptoms she had attributed to ADHD could actually be from anxiety. “I’m finally on the road to being on the right medications,” Lauren says. And even though her doctor doesn’t think her hunch from TikTok was right, she’s glad it opened a pathway for her to find the mental health resources she needed.

Gold cautioned that, in some cases, self-diagnosing through TikTok can be harmful. “There’s no content control. The information shared [on TikTok] is more like storytelling,” Gold says.

Hearing personal stories and symptoms that you relate to doesn’t necessarily mean that those same stories or symptoms will translate to a diagnosable condition. Because people who aren’t licensed therapists or doctors may share info about symptoms or diagnostic tips, Gold says people might get misinformation or be confused by what they’re seeing. And, some things that someone might claim are symptoms of a condition could just be normal behaviors. Gold cautions that the pathologizing of normal behavior online might make more people think they have a specific diagnosis than actually have that diagnosis.

In fact, Jon Van Niekerk, group clinical director for Cygnet Health Care and general adult faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told Vice that social media could be leading to over-diagnosis.

“The problem with diagnosing [online], and people presenting as mental health experts when they’re not, is that you can actually create more anxiety: If you get it wrong, you’re going to over-diagnose, and then something which is normal gets pathologized,” he says.

But for some people, TikTok can provide tangible information to bring to a provider, particularly about conditions that can be hard to get a diagnosis for.

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