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Why the internet cannot diagnose your mental illness

Self-diagnosing mental illness can be dangerous for one's mental and physical health

How many of us have done this? Consistent headaches for more than a week – google 'persistent headache'; chest pain after dinner – a quick search for 'chest pain' and if you're a particularly anxious sort, maybe 'signs of a heart attack'. 

Self-diagnosing is the process of diagnosing your illness, whether physical or mental, on the basis of past experiences or information available on popular media, such as internet or books.

Access to information on the possible signs of an illness is certainly important and also empowering. Information that is well-researched allows us to understand our symptoms so we can reach out to an expert and access early intervention. The downside, however, is that we often see our symptoms listed under signs of illnesses that we may not have, and proceed to panic or self-medicate.

This is possibly why we jump to conclusions that chest pain after a big dinner maybe a heart attack, or that feeling low during the monsoon is depression. If you are feeling anxious about your health, it is best to consult a medical expert when you spot symptoms that worry you. This is exponentially important in the case of mental health issues. 

The symptoms of mental illnesses are not crystal clear, unlike those of the flu. They occur as a cluster of symptoms and have subtleties that only a trained mental health expert can identify and diagnose. For example, a person is diagnosed with mild, moderate or severe depression only after being administered clinical tests by a psychologist and/or a psychiatrist, along with a thorough examination of the patient, based on guidelines prescribed in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association) and ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases issued by the World Health Organization). 

Self-diagnosing your mental illness may lead to trivializing the mental illness or magnifying it, both of which can be dangerous.

What you think is depression may be comorbid with a physical health issue such as hypothyroidism or diabetes (The term comorbid refers to an an illness which can occur along with another medical condition). Or, you may think it's just stress and suffer through an anxiety disorder instead of seeking help. 

Trivializing a mental illness such as OCD or bipolar disorder can also be hurtful towards people who are suffering from them, because you may be assuming that you have an illness when you actually dont - unlike those who are clinically diagnosed.

Self-medication is another major issue when someone self diagnoses their mental illness. Unlike a headache that can be taken care of by a pill, psychiatric medication often has side-effects and is carefully prescribed based on individual cases. Apart from medication, psychiatric treatment also involves therapeutic intervention by a trained psychologist. 

Then why is information available online?

It's okay to want to know about the health issue that you are facing and search for symptoms on the internet or read information somewhere. However, that must always be followed up by visiting a psychiatrist who will give an accurate, personalized diagnosis of your condition. 

In the case of mental illnesses, there is a lack of understanding among us. While the danger of over estimating symptoms does exist, it is important for us to be aware of when we need medical help. Websites with information on mental health and mental illnesses help people know and understand the signs of mental illnesses, the treatment available and the kind of practitioners who can help, so they can make informed decisions about seeking help.

This article has been written with inputs from Dr Garima Srivastava, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist with a PhD from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi.