While the internet has given us an incredible amount of access to information and world events over the last three decades, it has also made some professions more difficult. Before the internet, I had to go see and trust my medical doctor for a diagnosis based on my symptoms. Now, I am able to do a wealth of research on the more reputable sites like Mayo Clinic and present my doctor with my findings in order to facilitate the diagnosis process. While there are many people who self diagnose and self medicate, most of us still have to see a medical professional to get prescriptions written and filled and to receive the right treatment for our symptoms.
In the field of mental health, a lot of people “do their homework” and have tried to solve serious mental and emotional health issues on their own before coming to the office. This is problematic for several reasons.
1. Sometimes people with great intentions do more harm than good because they are not trained in mental health care.
The caring aunt who watches Dr. Phil may try to intervene at Thanksgiving dinner, but she is not trained to diffuse an abusive situation. She means well but does not have the tools to really help.
2. Many people tend to misdiagnose themselves.
I have encountered this often over the last several years, and I have seen a lot of damage done when clients or their loved ones “diagnose” each other based on what they have read, watched, or seen online.
Several years ago, a man came into my office for help. Having diagnosed himself with Borderline Personality Disorder, a serious mental and emotional health condition that impacts all areas of life, he had already tried to do some “self-treatment” but it had not helped. In fact, it had caused him some serious problems and he had become dependent on a medication he did not even need. It took weeks to assess and identify the correct diagnosis, to undo destructive patterns of thinking, and to replace unhealthy coping skills with healthy ones. He also had to transition from medications that were harming him and seek medical attention to start the correct medications in healthy dosages.
This does not mean the internet is bad. Sometimes research and resources can be not only helpful but even life-saving. Let’s say you are reading an article on suicide and realize a close friend has recently made statements that tend to predicate suicidal behavior. Equipped with that information, you are able to reach out to your friend and assist them in getting help. Or you may see an online assessment for substance addiction and, upon completion, make an appointment with a therapist or attend a Twelve Step group to address problematic and addictive patterns. I always encourage clients to utilize the resources available to them in order to get what they need.
The problem appears when we try to DIY something that was not meant to be done alone, like self diagnosing mental disorders. If you have a stroke and are in need of heart surgery, you most likely would not do an internet search for videos of heart surgery and then try to perform it on yourself in the kitchen. You would call a professional and let them treat you so that you are able to take care of yourself. Mental and emotional health is just as crucial as physical health, and the three are always tied together. If you find yourself struggling to treat what ails your mind and heart, do not be afraid to seek therapy or counseling. A good mental health professional will listen to you, create and confidential space, and develop a treatment plan that requires your involvement.
I always encourage clients to shop around as well. Most therapists will offer a free phone consultation. Take advantage of this! Therapy can be expensive, so it is important to invest your time, health, and money with someone you trust. If you do not trust your therapist, then the process will not work well for anyone involved. Ask friends or family members if they have seen a counselor they recommend. When you are talking to a potential therapist, remember that their job is to help you. Ask the therapist about their years of experience, areas of expertise, community involvement, and pricing. Many therapist offer scholarships or sliding scale fee structures to prevent cost from prohibiting ongoing care.
Caring for yourself is not just kind but crucial to your health and wellbeing. Round out your care team with a mental health professional who will join you in the process of hope and healing. You do not have to DIY your mental health!