Self-Diagnosis: Does It Help Or Harm?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you feel an ache or pain in your body, it's normal to want to speculate about what could be wrong and find answers on your own. The same is sometimes true with mental discomfort, as well. But like physical conditions, mental health conditions can be complex and often require a professional evaluation for an accurate diagnosis. It's easy to misinterpret the symptoms of a mental health issue, which can lead to severe consequences. 

With access to thousands of internet resources and articles, people are more exposed to inaccurate, misleading information than ever before. Because of the potential for misinformation, it's vital to know when seeking answers on your own is appropriate, and when it can be harmful.

You don't have to search for answers on your own

What does "self-diagnosis" mean?

Self-diagnosis is when one attempts to identify or diagnose a mental or physical condition within oneself. There are many outlets for self-diagnoses— from social media platforms to online assessments to the anecdotal experiences of friends and family. 

The risks of self-diagnosis

Staying well-informed on your health and the potential mental difficulties you may be facing is a positive thing. However, when we feel anxious or unsure about our mental state, it can lead to the temptation to self-diagnose and even treat our perceived mental health issues. This can have significant negative repercussions in many ways. A few of these risks or repercussions are outlined below: 

1. Missing a physical condition

Many physical conditions manifest with psychological symptoms, and vice versa. For example, heart disease and respiratory diseases like asthma and COPD can have symptoms like irregular or racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, and chest pains that mimic the symptoms of anxiety or a panic disorder.

Depression may share symptoms such as sleeping and eating disturbances, fatigue, and trouble concentrating with a Vitamin D deficiency, Alzheimer's Disease, and autoimmune diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis. 

2. Misinterpretation or masking of underlying conditions 

Symptoms of different mental disorders often overlap and can be easily misapplied or misinterpreted without an appropriate professional assessment. This is particularly true for anxiety and depression, as they are commonly co-occurrent with and share the same symptoms as many other related mental disorders. 

Common examples of mental health disorders that are easily misdiagnosed as another include, but aren't limited to:

  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

BPD is often confused with bipolar disorder. Both have symptoms of impulsive behavior and mood swings. People with borderline personality and bipolar disorder may share a history of unstable relationships, have trouble regulating emotions, and may be more prone to substance use disorders.

  • Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)

People with DID are sometimes misdiagnosed with schizophrenia because they may hear voices or hold beliefs that they have multiple identities, which can be interpreted as a delusion. DID may also be mistaken for BPD because of shared symptoms like emotional dysregulation, amnesia, an altered sense of self, and self-harming behaviors. 

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD shares symptoms with several conditions. For example, people with social anxiety disorder and specific phobias also sometimes experience overwhelming feelings of fear and dread associated with an object or situation such that they interfere with daily functioning.

3. Receiving delayed treatment

Misidentifying or ignoring symptoms because of inaccurate self-diagnosis can prevent or delay someone from seeking professional help, leading to worsening symptoms or complications.

4. Treatment errors

Treating the wrong condition or mismanaging symptoms can occur if the self-diagnosis is incorrect. This might lead to ineffective or even harmful treatments, as different conditions often require specific approaches.

5. Exacerbating anxiety 

Self-diagnosis, especially when based on internet research or anecdotal evidence, can increase anxiety. Misinterpretation of symptoms might lead to unnecessary worry, creating significant distress and complications with disorders that one may actually have.

6. Cultivating stigma 

Incorrectly diagnosing oneself with a mental health condition can create unnecessary self-stigma. This may lead to adopting unnecessary restrictions or behaviors that aren't beneficial. On a broader scale, a culture of self-diagnosis can create stigma directed outward at others. 

For example, one may label another as "narcissistic" because of negative personality traits when they don't have narcissistic (or any other) personality disorder. This can create greater stigma and make it more difficult for those who do have the disorder and would like to seek treatment. 

7. Lack of professional guidance 

Mental health professionals offer personalized assessments and treatments. Self-diagnosis often skips this crucial step, denying individuals the benefit of expert advice and support.

8. Legal and occupational consequences 

Some occupations or legal situations might require official diagnoses for accommodations or legal support. Self-diagnosis typically does not hold the same weight or validity in such scenarios. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Why is inaccurate self-diagnosis common?

If you suspect you have a mental disorder, it's completely normal to want to seek information about which disorder you could have or that could provide answers. It's also normal to seek information on how to ease your symptoms. However, any answers you can find on your own, such as through an internet search, are not equal to the professional assessment and opinion a mental health practitioner can provide. But why do people put faith in a self-diagnosis that could easily be incorrect— so much that they feel it is an adequate substitute for professional help? 

There are a few possibilities:

Confirmation bias

When individuals already believe they have a particular disorder, they may focus on information that supports and reinforces those beliefs and ignore or downplay information that might refute them. This is called confirmation bias. It's typically an unconscious process, but it can be damaging by creating new difficulties or worsening those you already have. 

Cultural factors

Mental health professionals often consider a patient's social and environmental factors during an evaluation, including those of culture, sexuality, religious affiliation, and more. The type of information that people use when self-diagnosing often overlooks these types of critical details, instead representing a simplified, more homogenous representation of mental health issues. 

It's also prudent to note that Western views about mental illness are typically the most predominantly represented, creating a potentially skewed approach to self-diagnosis. There are many other ways that cultural factors can influence how individuals express and interpret mental health symptoms: 

  • Different cultures may have stigmas associated with mental health, minimizing or misrepresenting an individual's experience.
  • Cultures sometimes differ in how they perceive manifestations of symptoms. For example, some cultures view somatic symptoms of psychological issues as more "valid" than emotional or behavioral symptoms.  
  • Cultural expectations around individual responsibility vs responsibility to family, friends, and community may influence how a person views and approaches mental health issues. 
  • Different cultures may hold differing beliefs about how psychological symptoms are caused, influencing how an individual might interpret them. 

Mental healthcare inaccessibility 

For some, mental healthcare is inaccessible or unaffordable, leaving individuals with seemingly no other option than to rely on information they receive from outside sources instead of a professional assessment. In cases such as these, self-diagnosis may be necessary because of the limited resources available for learning about mental conditions' causes, symptoms, and treatment. 

Over-identification with a diagnosis

Whether intentional or unintentional,— sensationalized representations of mental illness exist in many types of media, including social media, movies, and television. These misrepresentations can create skewed perceptions about mental health conditions and lead to inaccurate self-diagnoses. 

For some, this can lead to over-identification with a disorder or condition. When popular social discourse glamorizes or minimizes symptoms of mental health challenges, it can be tempting for some to adopt a diagnosis as an identity. Self-misdiagnosis is common in cases like these, creating more complications or worsening an individual's underlying mental health issues. 

This can also lead to self-diagnosis motivated not by obtaining better mental health and healing but as a justification for individuals who have no intention of changing or accepting accountability for their actions. 

Listen to your inner voice— then seek help from a professional

Though it can be detrimental to an individual's mental health in many ways, there are circumstances when self-diagnosis might be appropriate and helpful. In cases when care is inaccessible or difficult to receive, for example, or under the advisement of a professional when the individual is at risk for developing a mental disorder. 

Because of the abundance of mental health information and self-diagnostic assessments available on the internet, researchers are motivated to assess the accuracy and validity of those tools. In one such study, scientists from Indiana University recruited two groups of participants (1,123 adults and 2,237 college students, respectively) to complete self-assessments about their mental health, social media use, and demographic information. 

The assessments included a list of mental health disorders, each giving participants the option of selecting a) they had been diagnosed, b) they hadn't received a diagnosis but think they should, c) they were unsure, or d) they hadn't been diagnosed and didn't think they should be.

The researchers found that individuals who believed they should be diagnosed with internalizing disorders like depression and anxiety reported frequency and severity of symptoms comparable with those who had received a diagnosis, and such self-diagnosis could be a reliable indicator of such mental health disorders

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
You don't have to search for answers on your own

If you'd like to explore the possibilities offered by self-diagnosis or don't have adequate access to mental health services, here are some tips: 

  • Learn about mental health— Educate yourself about different mental health conditions, their symptoms, and how they manifest. This can help you better understand what you might be experiencing and provide a more comprehensive understanding of mental health. 
  • Keep a journal— Track your symptoms, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Note when they occur, their frequency, and their impact on your daily life.
  • Use reputable sources— Reliable mental health organizations and websites offer self-assessment tools or symptom checklists. These can provide insight, but they shouldn't replace professional diagnosis. 
  • Talk to someone— Discuss your concerns with a trusted friend, family member, or counselor. They can offer support and perspective.
  • Prioritize self-care— Regardless of a specific diagnosis, practice self-care strategies such as regular exercise, sufficient sleep, a balanced diet, and stress management techniques. These can positively impact your mental well-being.

How online therapy can help

Many people may seek self-diagnosis due to a lack of access to professional mental healthcare. However, the recent rise of online therapy has made professional health services more accessible than ever. Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp offer an accessible and convenient way to receive the advice of a licensed mental health professional. Professionals at BetterHelp have extensive experience and training in mental health issues and use proven diagnostic tools such as clinical tests, assessments, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). If you have questions or concerns about your mental health or symptoms you are experiencing, you can reach out to a therapist at BetterHelp today.

Not only is online therapy accessible and convenient, but it is also effective. Research indicates that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy for treating conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. If you want professional help and an official diagnosis for your mental health concerns, online therapy may be an ideal option. 


Taking charge of your mental health is always a positive thing, but relying on self-diagnosis can have many risks and drawbacks. If you cannot gain access to professional mental health advice, however, then you can conduct your own research and try to find reputable sources and assessments to determine what your issue may be. If you want a convenient and affordable way to receive professional advice, you can try online therapy with BetterHelp. Contact a licensed, experienced professional through BetterHelp and get started on the path to better mental health and you should never ignore potential signs of mental health issues. In some cases, that may include medical internet research to seek out information on your own— but there is a difference between self-education and self-diagnosis. 

If you have questions about symptoms or suspect you may have a mental health disorder, you may reach out to a specialist with mental health experience and training using diagnostic tools, including clinical tests, assessments, and The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5V). Accessing trained professionals who can assess symptoms, determine a diagnosis, and develop an effective treatment plan has become easier due to online platforms like BetterHelp.

BetterHelp is a convenient option for many people to speak with a licensed mental health professional via video chat, online messaging, and text from the comfort of home. And research indicates that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy for treating conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Contact a licensed, experienced professional through BetterHelp and get started on the path to better mental health.

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