health

Young people are using TikTok to self-diagnose personality disorders. Here's why it's worrying.

This post deals with mental health disorders and might be triggering for some readers.

Do you have the tendency to push people away? Do the smallest things make you implode? Do you constantly feel like you need to change your self-image? Do you always need reassurance? 

Well, according to a popular post on TikTok, your ✨bad personality traits✨ are actually undiagnosed borderline personality disorder (BPD).

@jasminealexius My transitions suck but for real being diagnosed was the best thing for me🖤👏🏻 #bpd #thetraumatribe #borderlinepersonalitydisorder ♬ tbtrack - Maylene

In case you haven't come across it on your FYP on TikTok, posts like these are among thousands on social media that are encouraging teens and young adults to self-diagnose their psychological wellbeing. They're everywhere. And they're racking up *billions* of views.

Just look up the hashtag #BPD (borderline personality disorder) - it has a whopping 4.6 billion views on TikTok. The hashtag #bipolar has 2.4 billion, while #DID (dissociative identity disorder) has another 1.7 billion views.

Watch: Lily Bailey on suffering from OCD. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

A lot of these videos involve teenage girls and young women posting about their symptoms, how they manage them, and tips on how to "self-diagnose" your own mental conditions.

And now, psychologists are reporting a new wave of young people claiming to suffer from rare personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — the kind of conditions that aren't usually prevalent in this age group.

@askaryana What having bpd can look like #bipolardisorder #bipolar #bipolardisoderawareness #bipolardisorderisreal ♬ daddy issues remix - this isn’t my main
@oliviacadee Another sneak peak inside my tiny little pea brain💫 #PerfectAsWeAre #comedy #bpd #cptsd #therapy #adhdtiktok ♬ original sound - Olivia Cade

According to researchers, there's one common theme identified with young people and self-diagnosed conditions: TikTok. More specifically, engagement in mental health content.

Because while mental health awareness is obviously a very good thing, this new wave of mental health influencers on social media are unintentionally encouraging the incorrect diagnosis of disorders. 

Meaning? Young people are reportedly manifesting behavioural and emotional disorders.

Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno said the dangers of this new movement are wide-ranging.

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"The first danger is that followers can take advice from a less-than-credible resource. While some of these influencers might pertain to have knowledge and experience in the area of mental health, most of the time it is anecdotal or personal experience (which really doesn’t put anyone in a position to give advice responsibly)." 

"Any mental health diagnosis needs to come from a credible resource, for example, a psychiatrist or psychologist," she shares.

"Mental health is one of those topics that can be very nuanced because there is a sliding scale or degrees of how someone could be affected (which is also further affected by varying levels of behaviour)."

While mental health concerns around the world are quite common, Sokarno said what’s not as common is our understanding of the various mental illnesses.

"There is a reason mental health experts spend years and years of study and research in their fields – it’s complicated! It’s not something you can learn about just from personal experience or from social media.

"There’s also a danger it could lend itself to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Most of us have had a medical ailment in the past where we’ve Googled and suddenly, we’re going down a rabbit hole and self-diagnosing with an array of illnesses.

"It’s the same with social media – we can very easily lead ourselves to a confirmed diagnosis (but mental health is just too complex, subjective and layered to do that)."

The positives of self-diagnosis.

Of course, there are numerous positives that come with the growing social media community supporting mental health awareness and understanding. 

The increased conversation on social media around mental health concerns can be seen as a positive shift, filling the void and helping remove some of the stigma associated with mental illness.

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What's more, it can also be seen as a helpful tool for people to identify difficult thoughts, feelings and behaviours that may otherwise go unnoticed for years.

We spoke to Mel, who has a 14-year-old daughter. She told Mamamia, "I watched an Em Rusciano post about her ADHD testing. She said she had to watch a screen and push a button when the light flashed. She said she was concentrating really hard and got the first few then got distracted by her thoughts and missed the next few, etc." 

"I was trying to get to the bottom of what was going on with my then 14-year-old daughter and thought, there is no way my daughter could do that task. She would be just like Em. It was a light bulb for sure."

Twelve months later, after a psych, a neuropsychological assessment, and a paediatrician appointment - Mel's daughter started medication for inattentive ADHD.

"Once it was mentioned to my daughter, that she may have inattentive ADHD, she started watching/following lots of people with ADHD and meme accounts. She was almost able to self-diagnose by the time we got to neuro psych.

"Given all the information she had researched herself it wasn’t a shock when we were told that ADHD was the issue. She is a great student. Good grades. No trouble. But the chaos of trying to get information from her brain to the page was hard to watch. Fingers crossed she gets some relief."

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There's also Lucinda, 40, who has diagnosed herself with ADD. 

She told Mamamia, "I'm not on TikTok but heavily use Facebook and Instagram. I'm quite sure I have ADD - it's just so hard to get a diagnosis. I can't remember when I first thought this was a possibility and whether it was from social media, Facebook groups, podcasts, or online articles, but it was definitely media-driven.

"I think ADD had a bad reputation anyway for being for naughty boys at school. I asked my doctor for a referral but I live regionally and the psych he referred me to isn't taking new patients. So, I'm back at square one, trying to find someone so I can ask for a referral.

"Then I'm not sure if it's even worth my time, as I'm not sure if I want to try medication (just not sure it's worth trying to find the right one, side effects, etc). So, at the moment, I'm just taking comfort in being pretty sure that this is just how my brain works and trying to figure out how to work best with it."

While not personality disorders, for misdiagnosed conditions such as ADD and ADHD, being able to spot symptoms and behaviours via social media and then know where to look for resources is invaluable.

Sokarno reminds us, "If anyone feels as though they might be experiencing thoughts, feelings or behaviours that are negatively impacting their day to day lives, it is best to seek the advice from a mental health professional immediately.

"A mental health professional can arm you with an array of tactics and coping mechanisms, as well as the ability to identify signs or triggers."

The implications of misdiagnosis.

With this in mind, is it possible that immersing yourself in lots of personality disorder content on TikTok might convince you of a behavioural issue you don't actually have? 

According to Sokarno, this is a strong possibility - especially when we consider the way we can start to lean towards confirmation bias. Because once TikTok's algorithm kicks in, you're served with even more videos on a specific topic. 

"If we’re constantly immersing ourselves in this type of content, it can be very easy to interpret that information in a way that supports previous beliefs or assumptions," Sokarno said.

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"For example, if you see one TikTok that shows a symptom you might also have, then you start to see several, you then might start validating what you’re seeing."

Image: TikTok

It's also important to note that while there has been a rise in conditions such as borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in young people - these are notably rare mental health conditions.

"According to the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder Australia, BPD is estimated to affect between two to six per cent of Australians," said Sokarno. 

"Overall, it is the most common personality disorder in Australia, however, it really only effects a small percentage of the population.

"As for Tourette syndrome, research indicates that as many as one in 100 school children may be affected in Australia.

"So overall, only a small portion of the population are diagnosed with these conditions and while someone might think they display some of the symptoms, it is always imperative to seek expert advice instead of making a self-diagnosis."

Interestingly, recent research has reported a significant rise in misdiagnosis in the number of young women and teen girls developing both verbal and physical tics.

Russell Dale, a professor in paediatric neurology at the University of Sydney, told the ABC that TikTok appears to play a part in triggering or exacerbating these behaviours. 

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Dale and his research team discovered many of their patients had reported watching influencers who have Tourette syndrome. 

In the research paper, it was concluded that in some cases, exposure to tics or tic-like behaviours could be a trigger for what they'd been seeing in their patients. 

Described as a "mass sociogenic illness", another study revealed that some of the most popular TikTok influencers have reported developing tics as a result of watching other creators' videos. 

So, what are the dangers of misdiagnosis?

According to Sokarno, the most important concern is that, in some cases, a false diagnosis can be life-threatening. 

"For example, if we look at the way a brain tumour can cause changes in personality, as well as depression – if you only look at symptoms and don’t get to the root cause, there can be serious implications.

"If you do have a mental health concern, a false diagnosis can mean that you’re not treating it correctly. Some sources, especially social media, can be really unreliable which means you really can’t trust the information you’re getting.

"Or, a false diagnosis can mean you’re treating something that doesn’t necessarily need to be treated or creating an issue when there may not have been an issue in the first place."

Where do we go from here?

"Throughout my career, I have certainly come across patients that have self-diagnosed a mental illness based on their own research through various sources," said Sokarno. 

"There definitely are patients diagnosing themselves from TikTok videos however I’m sure as social media continues to be a part of our everyday life, this may arise."

Sokarno's advice? Always seek professional help.

"Please, please, please speak to a professional before making any assumptions about your own (or other's mental health). Seeking help for any mental health concerns is now as easy as jumping online.

"Services like Lysn provide access to psychologists via video chat which can be accessed from the comfort of your own home. Or services like Beyond Blue and Lifeline offer free over-the-phone counselling that can assist when you need to talk through any concerns."

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: TikTok. 

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