Mental illnesses affect millions in the United States alone, but some are heading to Google instead of a doctor’s office.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 43 million Americans suffered from a mental illness in 2015. It was estimated that about 10 million of those Americans experienced an illness serious enough to functionally impair them.
With trepidation over the stigmatization of mental illnesses — particularly less widely known conditions like borderline personality disorder — and the cost of therapy, some people turn to online quizzes or browse websites like WebMD to diagnose themselves with a mental illness.
While self-diagnosis can help people with mental illnesses feel less isolated, not seeing a professional afterward can leave people without treatment or a complete understanding of their condition’s nuances.
“The stigma [against mental illnesses] probably keeps a lot of people from getting treatment,” says Joseph Beeney, a Pitt professor who studies personality disorders. “At the same time, if you’re considering that you might have some mental health difficulty, it’s not just the diagnosis that’s important. People should really see a psychologist or a psychiatrist because they’re probably going to need treatment for it.”
Kwai Kennedy, president of student organization Pitt Active Minds, knows the tranquility a professional diagnosis can bring.
“To me, it just offers a concrete explanation of how your body and mind function. It does not feel as scary to me now when I have a panic attack because now I can pinpoint the trigger and work on coping mechanisms,” Kennedy said. “I just know myself a little bit better.”
Still, she understands why so many flock to WebMD and recognizes self-diagnosis as the first step in their journey to a diagnosis — the key word being “first.”
Kennedy believes that “people need to keep in mind that there needs to be extensive research and perhaps ask friends who have experienced some similar symptoms and have been diagnosed already.”
By finding a diagnosis through self-diagnosing, people with mental illnesses can communicate what they’re feeling. Simply being able to discuss their situation in somewhat concrete terms can make people more comfortable opening up to others, rather than listing ambiguous, fluctuating symptoms they’ve noticed.
Aashna Waiwood, president of Pitt’s Psychology Club, believes that self-diagnosis can help people get a better understanding of their symptoms and what treatments exist.
“It often helps people to have a name associated with the variety of symptoms they’ve been experiencing, and know they aren’t alone,” she said.
That first step — believing in the potential of help — makes finding real treatment less daunting, says Kelly Shaw, a rising senior majoring in psychology and sociology who does research with Beeney.
“I think just having the growth of the internet and all of these things like Tumblr, informal ways to get information across, I think that can be really helpful for people, especially when there’s that block between deciding you might have a mental illness and going to get treatment for that,” Shaw said. “It’s such a big step to take but you can come across these things online and I think that also might help get awareness out into the mainstream.”
The cost of therapy can vary greatly, typically averaging between $75 and $150 per session, according to therapist Marla Cohen on GoodTherapy.org. Insurance companies can lower the price an individual pays for each session with co-payments, or a therapist’s office might be able to accept payments on a sliding-scale payment schedule based on a person’s income.
Waiwood said that, while people might think seeking a professional is costly, psychologists and psychiatrists can actually help you lower the costs and find better treatments faster.
“Professional diagnosis can be essential in getting people the right treatment, allowing various professionals to quickly understand what kind of help a given individual might need, and reducing cost of treatment through insurance support for medications, therapy or other recommended care,” she said.
Treating mental illness with the aid of medication complicates the debate over self-diagnosis: one might not get medication they need to cope with symptoms or they might try self-medicating.
“I think that self-diagnosing can be harmful if a person starts to self-medicate in a way that begins to do more damage than help,” Kennedy said. “Medication is tricky, and with mental illnesses especially, there is usually a trial period where you are taking several different kinds of meds until you find the one that works the best for you. If you are self-diagnosing, you don’t really have any professional feedback, which is helpful to have because they have experience and resources to give confident support.”
Ed Michaels, director of the University Counseling Center, said the center is available for any student to access such treatment — and they don’t need to worry about cost, because it’s covered under the wellness fee every student pays.
“Our staff in the University Counseling Center is committed to identifying whatever help a student might need, and connecting that student with the services that will be beneficial in helping them to navigate whatever challenges they face,” Michaels said in an email. “Self-diagnosis is never wise, as it is as likely to lead one in the wrong direction instead of the right one. Our mental health professionals are trained to steer students in the right direction.”
While being able to place a name on what you’re experiencing can be “freeing,” Shaw said, “overcoming problems in our lives is what defines us more than the problems themselves.”
“I think just coming to a conclusive diagnosis on your own can be a pro or a con,” Shaw said about self-diagnosing. “Some people are happy to finally figure [their condition] out. It explains a lot of the things in their life. But with any mental illness, self-diagnosing can often come with thoughts that the disorder defines you and that’s who you are and I think that’s really dangerous. And I think that one thing I would encourage is that people look at it as that it explains … the problems in their life and their tendencies, but it’s not ever who you are.”
Alexa Bakalarski contributed reporting.