By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D.
A recent New York Times article described a trend, noticed by many mental health professionals, where adolescents and young adults have been exploring mental health on social media. The article references the explosion of TikTok videos in which individuals disclose their psychiatric diagnoses and symptoms. For young people searching on social media, these videos are shown at an increasing rate, based on algorithms. Young people are finding a great deal of validation and connection by watching these videos. Many begin to seek out mental health support, often entering the therapeutic relationship with a clear idea of what their diagnosis will be.
As a mental health professional, I see a great deal of complexity coming from this trend. Certainly, the dissemination of information about mental health and reduction in stigma seems to be positive. Allowing individuals to more readily learn about psychiatric conditions will hopefully reduce fear, embarrassment, shame, and avoidance of mental health care. In addition, promoting self-understanding is important, particularly for young people who are in a developmental stage of identity exploration.
However, there are also concerning implications. First, self-diagnosis can be problematic in mental health, as it is in the medical field. There is a fine balance between being an informed health care consumer and a patient unwilling to listen to the expert opinion of their physician. Entering a physician’s office, unwavering in certainty of your diagnosis, can lead to friction and frustration. In contrast, entering with relevant personal and family history, a thoughtful list of your current symptoms, and readily accessible notes on recent changes in your lifestyle can be invaluable in partnering with your doctor to determine the origin of the problem. This is paralleled in mental health. Entering a therapeutic or evaluation process with information and an open mind is vital to the partnership between clients and clinicians.
The other implication of this trend involves the necessity of a formal diagnosis. I hear from many individuals, after a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation is completed, that they feel relief at “finally knowing what is wrong.” This validation is entirely understandable, and is not restricted to times when I have provided a diagnostic label. An in-depth exploration of neurocognitive strengths and weaknesses can provide invaluable information that can help individuals understand themselves, access what they need, and plan for their future. Sometimes, a client’s symptoms are best captured by a diagnostic label. However, other times, a person’s comprehensively evaluated profile does not warrant a formal diagnosis. The latter does not mean that a person’s symptoms are any less valid or impactful. Formal diagnoses generally require multiple symptoms, occurring within specified timeframes, and occurring in the presence or absence of other important factors. There are many instances where a symptom is clearly impactful and interfering for a client, without the client’s profile meeting the full range of criteria necessary for a diagnosis. At other times, a symptom that appears, on the surface, to indicate one diagnosis, may in fact indicate a very different diagnosis after a person’s full neuropsychological profile is explored.
As a wise mentor once told me that, in the evaluation process, we must “hold our hypotheses lightly.” We enter a therapeutic relationship, either as a client or a clinician, with a sense of what we might discover or be told. Our initial sense can be entirely accurate, or shockingly incorrect. Therefore, it is vital for all of us to hold our ideas about what may come from an evaluation lightly.
About the Author
Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.
Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.
Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.
Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.