This morning on ABC Melbourne’s Conversation Hour, the topic was how people are using the internet to self-diagnose mental health conditions using TikTok. Apparently, HCPs are seeing more people claiming to have undiagnosed mental health conditions based on videos they’ve seen on the app. 

The question being posed in the discussion was this: Are Dr Google and TikTok helping raise awareness of mental health conditions or misleading millions of viewers?

Oh’, I thought. ‘We’re having this conversation. AGAIN’, as the hosts were engaged in a bit of pearl clutching and assumption-making. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the suspicion and cynicism I was hearing. Sure. It might be a different health condition and a different social media platform, but haven’t we been doing this for years? For DECADES?

Yes. Yes, we have. 

The gist of the discussion today was questioning just how safe and sensible it is for people to use TikTok videos as a basis of self-diagnosing ADHD and other mental health conditions. The people in these videos are sharing their experiences and their symptoms, and others are recognising what they see. As a result, increasing numbers of people are heading off to their GP or a psychologist in the belief they have ADHD. Are these videos a good thing? Or is it misleading and dangerous? 

There were stories of lived experience – people sharing how they had seen something on social media and used that as the springboard to find answers to health questions they have. And others explaining how difficult it had been to get help in the first place, often after having been dismissed for years. 

Social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even if someone does self-diagnose – correctly or incorrectly – they still need to see a healthcare professional to find the right treatment and care. That’s certainly the case when it comes to diabetes. So much of what I have learnt about different treatments or devices has come directly from the community, but in almost all cases, I then need to see a HCP to actually access that new therapy. I can’t write myself a prescription if I want to try a new insulin. In most cases, new tech also needs a HCP sign off, especially if you want to access subsidy programs. 

I’ve come to learn that a good healthcare professional is one who considers Dr Google a colleague rather than a threat. Those who grimace and dismiss someone who walks into their office with the announcement ‘I’ve been googling’ is really just admitting that they believe they are still the oracle of all information; information to be disseminated when they decide it’s time and in the way they believe is right for the individual. 

We have moved on from that. 

And surely we have moved on from the idea that social media is evil and highly distrustful. I’ve been writing and speaking about this for over ten years. In fact, in 2013, I wrote this in a post‘The diabetes social media world does not need to be scary and regarded with suspicion. The role of HCPs is not under threat because PWD are using social media – that’s not what it’s for. It is just the 2.0 version of peer support.’

I so wished that the discussion I listened to this morning had started with a different framing. Instead of highlighting how social media in healthcare could be problematic, they could have emphasised just how empowering and positive it can be for people to recognise themselves on social media. How seeing those stories and hearing those experiences normalise what we see in ourselves, and how they can help us find the right words for what it is that we have been thinking and direction for what to do next. 

It’s not social media and online health discussions that are going to make HCPs redundant. Rather, it’s their refusal to understand just how important and useful these sorts of communications and communities can be. In a post in2016 I referred to it all as a ‘modern day kitchen table’. Sure that kitchen table now looks like a TikTok video, a Twitter discussion or an Instagram reel. But learning from others living similar lives isn’t new. And neither is searching for answers using something like Dr Google. It’s sustaining. And for so many, essential.