Exploring mental health & illness through social media

Some trends may be doing more harm than good

Misinformation about mental illness can spread easily on social media.

While social media can generate critical discussion about mental health and mental illness, it can also lead many to self-diagnose and make people with mental illnesses feel misrepresented. 

The Journal sat down with Louisa Flock, ArtSci ’24 and members coordinator at Jack.org’s Queen’s Chapter, to discuss how mental health is discussed on social media.

“What’s really missing on social media is ‘seek professional help,’” Flock said in an interview with The Journal. “Instead, people are turning to their favourite creators or who they follow on Instagram.”

Talking openly about mental health is useful for breaking down stigma and normalizing diagnoses, but misinformation is rampant in these online discussions. It’s not unheard of for TikTok creators to put on a lab coat and pretend to be medical professionals. 

While you don’t have to be a doctor to provide accurate information on mental health, it’s difficult to understand complex mental illnesses without specialized training. It’s even more difficult to communicate the depth of these conditions in short, digestible content.

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On apps like TikTok, the more you interact with a certain kind of content, the more the algorithm will feed you similar content. The TikTok algorithm is so personalized it might make you feel like it’s reading your mind

In some cases, personalized content can feel like a support system for those who don’t have one offline. This can be positive for the overall mental health of someone who is struggling. 

“Talking about [mental illness] on social media means that, internationally, people can connect to you and relate to you when in their own lives they may not have those connections,” Flock explained.  

However, these algorithms can be dangerous, especially for young people. The TikTok algorithm, specifically, can very quickly send users down pipelines that expose them to alt-right extremiststransphobia, and pro-eating disorder content. 

Similarly, the TikTok algorithm can fill a young person’s “For You Page” with seemingly relatable content about ADHD, autism, or anxiety. 

If users are curious about a mental illness and watch videos about that illness, they will be sent more and more videos on that topic. It could easily make a user feel they have been diagnosed by the algorithm itself. 

Self-diagnosing can be a valuable tool for people unable to receive a professional diagnosis due to barriers beyond their control. Despite Canada’s publicly funded healthcare, mental healthcare is still largely privatized. These barriers can be amplified for marginalized communities disproportionately affected by poverty. In these cases, a self-diagnosis might be unavoidable. 

While a self-diagnosis can motivate people to seek the mental health services they need and access early intervention, it can also be harmful. Individuals often lack the perspective to evaluate the severity of their own symptoms and likely don’t know the criteria for diagnosing mental illnesses.

Inaccurate self-diagnoses can lead people to believe their symptoms are more detrimental than they truly are and trivialize the experiences of people who have been diagnosed with a specific mental illness.

“I’ve seen [TikToks that show] ‘oh I’m having manic episodes,’” Flock said. “We have to change the narrative that mental illness terms are just to be thrown around because it really discredits everyone’s experiences.”

“[Mental illness] is not a joke or something [TikTok users] should take lightly.”

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Social media apps like TikTok reward creators with money and notoriety for their ability to gain views and likes, not the quality or accuracy of their content. When a creator can get more views spreading misinformation than with accurate information, there’s an incentive to create inaccurate content. 

Rare and serious mental illnesses have become curiosities on social media and tend to get a lot of views. #Borderlinepersonalitydisorder has 600 million views on TikTok, and #Dissociativeidentitydisorder has 700 million.

While these videos tend to rack up a lot of views, they fail to describe the nuances of these disorders.

Mental health conditions exist on a continuum. Even though an individual may be experiencing certain symptoms of a mental illness, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have that condition.

Each condition has specific criteria and nuances that a mental health professional must evaluate before making a diagnosis. It takes a professional with training and authority to diagnose a mental illness. 

Fortunately, there are mental health professionals on social media who have dedicated their platforms to debunking the misinformation that plagues the internet, but even they don’t have all the answers. Diagnoses by a professional require a unique understanding of a patient that cannot be communicated effectively through social media posts. 

While many teens are diagnosing themselves with borderline personality disorder, they aren’t aware of the controversy that exists in the medical community about whether this disorder can even be diagnosed in adolescents.

Further, while there are many TikTok users introducing their alternate personalities, academics remain unsure whether dissociative identity disorder or multiple personality disorder is a diagnosable condition. 

Unless social media apps make a choice to combat inaccurate information about mental health with fact-checking software, it’s up to individuals to gauge the accuracy of viral content.

“There’s so much misinformation,” Flock said.

“Ask questions, do your own research, seek professional help if you think that it applies to you. Don’t see one thing online and just assume ‘oh I have this.’”

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