In this information age, there are positives and negatives when it comes to mental health.
I can not tell you the number of times a person enters my office these days with a diagnosis in mind. Either one for themselves or for another person in their life. “I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube and I now know he’s a narcissist.” “I believe that she’s bipolar because I looked up the diagnostic criteria.” “She must be borderline, everything I’ve read fits that.”
Back when I was in college, we used to call this “medical student syndrome.” It happens when you learn about a list of diagnostic criteria and then everyone you know seems to fit that criteria, often yourself included. I remember this happening to me when I took Abnormal Psych, just as the professor had warned us it would. For months I walked around thinking I was surrounded by every mental health diagnosis there was, including a few myself. The problem is, a person no longer has to get their hands on the latest version of the DSM to look up diagnostic criteria, it’s all right there on the internet with the click of a button.
So what are the positive and what are the negatives to this? Well, one positive is that it has definitely increased awareness about mental illness, which I hope has also decreased some of the stigma associated with it. It also can increase people’s understanding which can help with empathy towards those who suffer from mental illness. And of course, the information can help people understand when they may need to seek professional help.
But like most things, there can also be negatives associated with too much information, especially in the hands of people who have not had the training, education, or experience to know what to do with that information. My biggest concern is that when it comes to diagnosing, it really should be left to the professionals. Diagnostic criteria is only that, it is a list of symptoms that indicate that an individual COULD have a specific diagnosis. It does not mean that they DO have that diagnosis.
How many times have you searched for physical symptoms you are experiencing, only to then not be able to sleep because you are worried it may actually be a brain tumor (or something equally as terrifying), because the Internet said it could be?
To illustrate this point, I just did an internet search for some very common symptoms to see what would come up. I typed in “headache, fatigue, irritability”, things most of us experience from time to time. Several diagnoses immediately came up: sinusitis, insomnia, migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome, and hypothyroidism. One website states that there are actually 126 conditions associated with these symptoms! So how would one know which condition actually applies to them? We would have to go to the doctor and go through a diagnostic evaluation to differentiate between all of the possibilities until a trained professional is able to determine what the correct diagnosis actually is. Most of the time, thank goodness, it is not a brain tumor.
But what are the dangers of this when it comes to mental health? What I have experienced that is concerning is that when people come to believe they or someone they love has a certain mental health diagnosis, then they begin to deal with that person as though that is actually the diagnosis. This can be extremely dangerous. I’ve had young children come into my office telling me that they have diagnoses they should have never heard of and are not even able to pronounce. This labeling is not good for anyone, especially when it is a label not determined through sound diagnostic methods. I’ve had people make the decision to leave spouses believing the person is unchangeable or the situation is hopeless due to an internet search. I’ve had clients do things that exacerbate symptoms, believing they are helping, because someone on the Internet said that’s what should be done.
So I urge everyone to take a moment. Slow down your process. If you think you or someone you love may have a mental health diagnosis, seek professional help. It is not uncommon for symptoms to look like a diagnosis but actually be the result of something else, like family dynamics, developmental issues, emotional immaturity, or even basic conditioning.
It is often the case that people bring their children or teens to me for treatment convinced they have a severe mental health diagnosis, and once treatment is complete, the symptoms have dissipated. It is not uncommon for a couple to begin marriage therapy with the wife telling me the husband is a narcissist and so the marriage can not be saved, and then end treatment with a partner who is empathetic and compassionate. Teasing out, diagnosing, and then treating these issues must be done by a qualified mental health professional with experience with the issue of concern.
So as tempting as it may be, I really urge you to stay off the internet when it comes to concerns of mental health. It really can do more harm than good. And unfortunately it often does. The good news is, he may not be a narcissist after all!