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These days, the Internet and the world at large seem full of self-admitted depressed, anxious or otherwise disordered thinkers, many of whom don’t have a formal doctor’s diagnosis to back that claim up. It leaves many people wondering, “Wait, can you self diagnose depression?”
You might already know the answer — only medical professionals can do something as official as diagnosing.
Self-diagnosed depression might be great if you want to complain or have a (perfectly reasonable) excuse for why you’ve been feeling or behaving differently lately, but if you’re actually looking to get help and treatment for depression, you’ve got to make things official.
Given that this whole diagnosis question is rather complicated, let’s take the details one at a time, starting with the most obvious question: can you self diagnose your depression?
The internet overflows with a number of things, but as long as it has been available to the average person, there have always been quizzes. Quizzes, naturally, have led to the creation of tests — diagnostic ones that look at common symptoms.
You may have taken an unofficial IQ quiz as a kid, or a “Do I have a rare disease” quiz at 4 a.m. while worrying about some otherwise benign symptom. If you did this, congratulations — you self diagnosed.
Self diagnosis is diagnosis without the opinion of a medical professional — it’s a determination made by you or through your own answers to a quiz, without the “filter” of a medical professional’s experience or guidance.
Can it be done? Sure — a quick google search will lead you to dozens of so-called diagnostic tests you can do yourself right now. But it’s important to understand that these kinds of quizzes or tests should only be used to help guide you toward medical help.
Depression tests can even be effective and somewhat accurate — a 2008 study looked at the validity of self-assessment tests for depression and found that around 75 percent of those who self-determined that they had depression were later found to have depression by a healthcare professional.
The study in question further found that (in similar fashion) people who did not self diagnose depression in their questionnaire were likely to be correct.
The major risk of self diagnosis — as opposed to professional diagnosis — is incorrect diagnosis, and that’s sort of obvious.
Short of you having a medical degree, self diagnosis isn’t a safe strategy for getting the right cognitive care, and to be blunt, even the experts who are capable of diagnosing professionally don’t diagnose themselves — mental health professionals are smart enough to seek the support of other mental health professionals when in need.
In the larger, “what could go wrong?” sense, the most obvious answer is that you won’t get the treatment you need. Or worse, you seek treatment for something that isn’t wrong with you.
The good news, however, is that at least you can’t write yourself prescriptions.
As for consequences, the worst-case scenario for an incorrect diagnosis includes using the wrong medications, using life-threatening medications for no reason, racking up unnecessary medical costs, and actually giving yourself depression from treating the wrong condition without success.
This is a big enough (and common enough) problem for women already, who often struggle to have their symptoms taken seriously. We don’t need to add fuel to that wildfire.
As you likely already know, a mental health professional should be the one diagnosing and establishing a treatment strategy for depression.
Psychiatric drugs are powerful medications, and while they’re certainly effective when used correctly, they can cause a lot of damage when misused, including chemical imbalances that might result in increased suicide risk.
Not only should you never take antidepressants without a healthcare provider’s guidance, you should also never change your dosage based on anything other than the recommended guidelines established by your healthcare provider.
Taking medications incorrectly and without support can lead to side effects: hallucinations, nausea, sleepiness, sexual dysfunction, panic attacks and, yes, potentially death.
If you believe you may be suffering from depression, that is a conversation you need to have with a healthcare professional — not three friends from high school over drinks, not that one coworker you’re really close with and not WebMD at 4 a.m. while ordering supplements to naturally “cure” depression.
All of that is bad for your health.
Alright, you get it: do not self diagnose your depression.
Depression treatment is a staggeringly complicated space. Chances are, even if you do have a form of clinical depression, you’ll need guidance to understand which kind you’re suffering from.
Depression symptoms may mean major depression (a form of severe depression) or seasonal affective disorder (a seasonal form of mild depression or moderate depression).
They may also indicate the possibility of a mental health disorder like bipolar disorder, which again requires the support of a professional to treat, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which requires the same.
There are various ways to treat depression as a medical condition, and they may include therapy, medication, lifestyle changes and the alteration of daily routines and habits like smoking or drinking. This is a conversation a healthcare provider can walk you through.
Your depression may improve with some extra physical activity in your life, or it may benefit from weekly or regular behavioral therapy to help you deal with undesired feelings and emotions.
You may also be put onto a prescription antidepressant medication for your mental health condition, and a professional may modify your dosage from time to time, depending on your needs.
Sounds exhausting? It is — when you’re alone and trying to do it yourself. Luckily, a diagnosis of depression isn’t out of reach. Clinical diagnosis and subsequent medical treatment is available right now.
Looking to learn more about depressive disorder and the symptoms of depression? We have resources available, including our mental health resources guide, which can help you understand those depressive symptoms and the mental disorders they may signal.
But for an accurate diagnosis, do the right thing: talk to a professional. Our online therapy resources are available so you can speak to a mental health professional and find out if you have clinical depression today. What comes after is easier — and less uncertain.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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