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TikTok blamed for rise in mental health misdiagnosis among teens

Therapists have warned that a growing number of youth people are misdiagnosing themselves with mental health problems based on poor medical advice on TikTok.

The Chinese-owned video sharing platform has reached heights of dizzying popularity in recent years, and now has over one billion users worldwide. However, there are concerns that young people in Ireland are among those turning to the platform for mental health advice – after some US healthcare providers reported a surge in the number of young people misdiagnosing themselves after learning about a condition on the app. 

Mental health experts and doctors have cautioned that misdiagnoses can lead to a person not receiving the correct treatment for a condition they actually may have, or could convince someone who is mentally stable that they are unwell.

A recent report from the New York Times highlighted the problem, and featured the story of a 17-year-old girl called Kianna who wrongly diagnosed herself with a mental health condition after spending hours on TikTok. The teenager, from Baltimore, Maryland, said she started spending hours on the app after in-person interaction from friends stopped when schools shut in the US in 2020 after a Covid lockdown was enforced. She said her self-esteem started to plummet, and her anxiety worsened, leading to sleep problems. 

She told the American newspaper that hours spent on the app led to her critiquing her own appearance while sitting alone in her bedroom. 

“I remember just being on TikTok for hours during my day,” added Kianna, 17, who asked to be referred to by only her first name when speaking about her mental health. “That’s when my self-esteem started declining.”

She says she started to become fixated on her isolation, brought on by the fact her school classes had all gone online, and she only texted her friends instead of being able to talk to them in person. Overuse of the app, along with headaches and a lack of sleep, she says, brought about the odd feeling of ‘living outside of her body’.

That’s when she started seeing videos on TikTok about depersonalisation disorder. As per the NHS, depersonalisation is a dissociative condition where you have the feeling of being outside yourself and observing your actions, feelings or thoughts from a distance. The condition is relatively rare, affecting around two per cent of people.

She said she immediately thought “I have this”. However, she didn’t inform anyone, with mental illness not something she would normally talk about with her family or her friends. She said that meant “I was so in my head that something was wrong with me”.

Kiana eventually went back to school, and her mental health symptoms slowly went away when she saw her friends again. She was analysed by a school psychologist for depersonalisation disorder almost one year after she first self-diagnosed herself with the disorder. The psychologist determined she did not have it. Kianna accepted that she did not have the rare condition, however, experts say this is not always the case with someone who has already misdiagnosed themselves. 

Dr Annie Barsch, an American psychologist, speaking to the NYT, said that teenagers in particular are often adamant they have a certain condition after experiencing just one symptom – and will even tell a therapist they are the ones who are wrong.

Ms Barsch said teens will often declare that they have a certain condition after experiencing just one symptom – and even tell a therapist that they are wrong.

The Chicago-area professional said she now feels as though she is “competing” against influencers on TikTok when providing care. 

‘It’s almost as though me, as a professional — with a master’s degree, a clinical licence and years of experience — is competing with these TikTokers,’ she said.

Concerns about a rise in misdiagnosis of mental health conditions follow a study published in March which analysed 100 videos on the platform posted with the hashtag #mentalhealth which had been viewed a collective one billion times. The study revealed that adolescents are turning to TikTok as a source of support, and the advice is predominantly driven by users’ conversations. 

In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson said: “We strongly encourage individuals to seek professional medical advice if they are in need of support”. 

However, advocates of the platform say there are positives for young people too – arguing that a positive and supportive online community can be a force for good, especially for those who do not have sufficient access to mental health resources or may be isolated.

Worries about misdiagnosis among young people, however, also come as parents were warned this month that young people in Ireland are buying drugs on TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram.

“Ordering illicit substances online has become as easy as ordering dinner with apps offering Irish youths everything from Viagra to heroin,” the Times reported, with parents urged to exercise caution.

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