A few days ago my aunt sat down and told me she thought she was autistic. Suddenly, at 57 years old. Slight autism, she added in a slightly lower tone, perhaps suspecting herself that she was exaggerating. Yet despite her own suspicions of hers, she was convinced: she wanted to go for a test. All the symptoms matched, she added again. I asked her what these symptoms were, where she had read them: needless to say, the entire symptomatology listed was something detectable in the average person. And that she self-diagnosed it on TikTok.
We know it: starting from the particular is always partial and insufficient to explain the universal. Yet this case is explanatory enough to be sublimed as a symbol of something. In fact, this anecdote contains all the problems inherent in the way we have been talking about mental health on social media for some time now, or since – thanks to the push of the pandemic, from which we all came out with dazed neurons – mental well-being has become a topic of debate on social networks. This anecdote contains all the contraindications of the question: the trivialization of the themes, the danger of self-diagnosis, the absolute lack of moderation between creators and the public, the opportunism of certain professionals in the sector who make fun of themselves in TikTok videos, but above all the fine line between the “will to normalize” and its second face, or rather the spectacularization of pain, the voyeurism that has arisen in some cases around the disease.
“Normalization” is now marketing
Far from questioning the enormous and necessary work that has been done in a few years to break down a stigma that has lasted for centuries, it is however now clear how the spread of this dreaded urgency for “normalization” has made its rounds, risking trivializing a sacrosanct theme: it is no longer awareness, but in many cases spectacularization useful for one’s profits. Mental health is now being talked about everywhere, not being aware of it means living on Saturn, yet Fedez still tells us that “it is not talked about enough” and therefore he talks to us about it, aware that he is riding a theme that is now perfectly trendy, perfectly useful to the own positioning. Similarly, when Giorgia Soleri, an influencer by profession, claims she wants to go to Beijing Express “to normalize one’s ailments” and not to indulge his more earthly ambition to make television (after all, what harm would there be in admitting it?), the doubt arises whether it is a more flattering alibi than mere profit. In short, the concept is that the important debate on mental health has now made the rounds, ending up diminishing itself. Because nothing is more credible when it becomes hypocritical, when it becomes marketing. And because every phenomenon has its drifts.
Fedez and psychotropic drugs. We talk about it with the Italian Society of Psychiatry
Psychiatrists (and psychopharmaceuticals) on TikTok
And yet, the most perplexing are not so much the influencers who talk to us about mental health with the aim of improving the performance of their profile (sometimes even with the hashtag #adv), but rather those professionals of the discipline who, after graduating in the days of TikTok, they disclose at the time of the algorithm. We spend our lives being told that doing self-diagnosis on Google is evil, we spend entire appointments with our general practitioner covering our heads in ashes admitting that yes, we Googled our diagnosis, yet it’s really that easy, then, slip into countless videos of psychologists and psychiatrists discussing the doses of a psychoactive drug via social media. And it’s true, many of them promise to go to their doctor and never rely on do-it-yourself, but there are two questions answered: the first is how does an average user distinguish between a professional and a charlatan holy man ( I’m asking for my aunt, to be precise); the second is where to get the certainty that a patient, in a moment of absolute fragility, does not give in to the advice he likes best, i.e. those of TikTok and not those written on the prescription. Equal perplexities then concern the tone of voice, the miniaturization of an extremely personal and complex disclosure, the caricatured way in which one treats the intimacy of one’s patients. So much for privacy, one might say, if we really wanted to say it as another aunt of mine would say.
From empathy to voyeurism
The story obviously becomes more complex when it welcomes minors among its protagonists. And, lo and behold, TikTok is populated by teenagers. Thanks to the possibility that social networks give to tell one’s life as if it were a reality show, in fact, more and more young people confide their very personal battle one video after another. A positive and wonderful way of creating community, of elaborating the disease, of exorcising, of normalizing precisely, but at the same time it must be remembered that the first person story does not have the filters of competence: the risk is slipping into the gaffe of Giorgia Soleri herself, influencer who this summer published the list of psychiatric drugs he was taking, attracting criticism of emulation; the risk is slipping from empathy to voyeurism, as in the case of Leila Kaouissi, suffering from DCA and depression, who is caught in the crossfire of half a million followers and haters every day, or a daily client of a ravenous algorithm that monetizes her illness .
Leila Kaouissi, fighting severe anorexia on TikTok. Eating disorders in the hands of the algorithm and public voyeurism
The self-diagnosis. The therapist: “It’s like I, a professional, compete with tiktokers”
The therapist Annie Barsch recently spoke to this theme, that is, of teenagers who choose to believe in TikTok rather than in a psychologist. New York Times: “It’s almost as if I, as a professional – with a master’s degree, a clinical license and years of experience – am competing with tiktokers,” he said. Although in fact the circulation of information can help to give a name to a malaise that may never have been verbalized, the risk is that of labeling oneself incorrectly, of becoming fixated on one’s own diagnosis, or of waiting for this to ask for help. In fact, it is not difficult to come across videos such as “the three symptoms of borderline disorder”, “put down a finger if you have at least one of these symptoms of depression”, nor to convince yourself that you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder just because you are messy chronic.
That more and more teenagers are self-diagnosing disorders on TikTok says it a study by the University of Toronto: doctors should be aware of the widespread dissemination of health misinformation on platforms and its potential impact on clinical care. In fact, the algorithm’s diagnostic “techniques” are not guided by clinical ethical rules or DSM-5 criteria, but by the time you watch a video: the more time you watch it, the more often the platform will show you similar videos. Personally, for example, it was enough for me to search for “depression” a couple of times to find various contents on the subject: a “rabbit hole” effect that the app has repeatedly rejected publicly. Just as it recently rejected the results of a study that suggested that, within 30 minutes of joining the platform, they were shown content related to eating disorders and self-harm.
“Today it is fashionable to diagnose oneself with mental disorders”. Everything asks for salvation
Again Dr. Hawkins, then underlines another theme that concerns her 16-year-old son: among his peers it has become fashionable to identify with a mental health disorder; for them, she added, it’s considered a personality trait rather than something to heal from. “Until recently, mental disorders were the taboo of taboos, no one said they had them and those who had them hid them. Today it has become almost a trend to self-diagnose them and exhibit them. But there is nothing to exhibit,” he explained these days at Press Vincenzo Villari, head of psychiatry at the Molinette hospital in Turin (which, however, has also reported an effective increase in anxiety and depression problems in boys). “Children – said Dr. Prinste, chief science officer of theAmerican Psychological Association – are looking for community and are using their current struggle with mental health symptoms as a way to find like-minded people, sometimes wearing their symptoms as a sign of pride or a shorthand way to explain themselves to others others”.
But “you don’t really need to have a mental health disorder to suffer,” discovered Kianna, a Baltimore teenager who diagnosed herself with depersonalization disorder on TikTok but denied by her therapist, “but everyone needs emotional support”. Everything asks for salvation.
“Mental health” on social media: benefits (and risks) of the trend that wants to break down taboos