TikTok's 'Undiagnosis' Trend Spreads Misleading Mental Health Advice

by Katie Brown
August 23, 2023 at 10:05 AM UTC

Navigating TikTok's 'Undiagnosis' Videos: Mental Health Experts Raise Alarms

Clinical Relevance: Young patients may see misleading mental health information on social media

  • TikTok’s proliferation of ‘undiagnosis’ videos sparks concern in mental health circles.
  • Gen Z content creators post videos where they self-diagnose emotional and psychological issues, then declare themselves as ‘undiagnosed.’
  • Mental health experts caution against the trend, saying it may spread misinformation and downplay serious conditions.

When TikTok was primarily filled with choreographed group dances it was all in fun and games. But now mental health professionals are sounding the alarm over a flood of videos on the social media platform made by young people self-diagnosing their own emotional and psychological issues – and then declaring themselves “undiagnosed.”

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The videos usually go something like this: While dancing to Ace of Base’s “The Sign,” creators rattle off a list of perceived disorders that they’ve decided to “undiagnose” themselves with, followed by some comedic reasoning for why they don’t have the condition after all. 

@littlemissshinkicker

im cured😌🫶🏽 #mentalhealth #neurodivergent #bipolar

♬ I saw the sign – quinn.io

These videos often rail against the negative consequences of having a mental health issue, warning against the risk of misdiagnosis and the tendency to pathologize normal experiences. They sometimes question the validity of serious mental illness, asking whether disorders like borderline personality disorder or ADHD really exist. 

For example, creator @4nn3m43 joked that having a meal cured her eating disorder, while user @littlemissshinkicker said she no longer had ADHD because “only boys can have it.” Another creator self-undiagnosed her PTSD, citing her lack of veteran status. 

The Dangers 

Jackie Nesi, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, told Psychiatrist.com that such content can perpetuate misconceptions and misinformation.

“Diagnosing a mental illness is actually pretty complicated, and there’s a lot of different factors that go into it,” she said. “People — particularly young people — may be believing that they have a diagnosis that doesn’t really apply to them.” 

Misinterpretation could further spread the falsities they aim to dismantle. They might lead some impressionable viewers to genuinely believe that deep breathing is a cure for anxiety or that certain astrological signs are prone to psychosis. 

“There’s the risk of downplaying what can be really significant symptoms or turning something that’s very serious into a joke and making it seem like this isn’t a real concern or this is something funny,” Nesi added.

Homegrown mental health content sometimes draws upon stereotypes propagated by TV, movies, and beyond. This might convince a viewer they don’t have a problem if they don’t fit neatly into a particular trope. They may not seek the help they need as a result.

“Part of that is probably because we don’t have great education and information out there about mental illness, and so a lot of what people are relying on is what comes from the media,” Nesi said. With no expert reference point, someone might suffer needlessly because they don’t understand that help is available.

Potential Upsides

Nesi said that, problems aside, social media platforms like TikTok can inspire folks to take a proactive approach to their mental health and develop connections with like-minded individuals, And by imbuing a sense of levity to these conversations they might encourage people to share their own experiences, possibly reducing the pain that can come with doing so. 

“Humor plays such a role in discussions of mental health and mental illness, particularly on TikTok. I think there are real benefits to that,” said Nesi. She also pointed out that by leaning into mental health clichés, undiagnosis videos may sometimes – ironically – serve to debunk some false notions.

 “It’s a clever way to call out a stereotype about a given mental illness and say, ‘Let me tell you about my experience with it,’” said Nesi. 

That said, Nesi advised proceeding with caution. Making a video about a serious mental illness without the benefit of expert guidance could minimize the severity of a condition and proliferate inaccurate information. If you identify with a specific emotional content you discover on TikTok, Nesi suggested referencing verified sources like a specialty support organization, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), or by speaking with a physician or therapist to learn more.

Nesi said that there’s no reason why finding a social media connection can’t be part of the therapeutic process. However, the concept of “undiagnosis” is not really a thing. No qualified mental health professional would ever subscribe to the idea that you can simply “quit mental illness”, Nesi stressed. 

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