Martin Ingle says he was “a more or less healthy young man” before he turned 23 and began to notice changes.
“Within a few weeks, I saw changes in my brain,” he said.
While searching the Internet for answers, she came across a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) she had never heard of but that encompassed everything she had experienced.
Should I google my symptoms?
We’ve all been told not to use “Dr Google”, but many Australians still do.
Preeya Alexander is a doctor in Melbourne in whose consulting room many patients talk about exploring their symptoms.
“Googling symptoms and management options can help some patients find their way through the health care system,” Dr. Alexander said.
“Recently, a patient of mine Googled foot pain and assumed plantar fasciitis as the diagnosis.
“Their online search led them to see a physical therapist, and it was a perfect fit.”
There is a flip side though.
“Patients can go down all kinds of rabbit holes, and I’ve seen googling cause significant anxiety,” says Dr. Alexander.
He has seen patients with symptoms such as cough and fatigue on Google and search results for diagnoses of serious diseases such as cancer.
When patients arrive after many sleepless nights, Dr. Alexander spends most of his time “reassuring them that the cough is post-viral…not the cancer they’re panicking about.”
Social media is a double-edged sword
Social media platforms are increasingly being used to find answers to mental health concerns.
ADHD is one of the most popular health topics on TikTok. But a study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that nearly half of the ADHD TikTok videos the researchers examined were misleading.
Nevertheless, information found on social media can change the lives of people with mental health problems.
After months of online research, Martin Ingle received the correct diagnosis from his third therapist.
“The two therapists I saw before this, neither of them had a clue,” she says.
“It wasn’t until months later—after doing my own research and seeking out someone who specialized in what I suspected—that I was able to make the correct diagnosis.”
Finding this information online is invaluable, he says.
Ian Hickie, a mental health specialist and co-director of the Brain and Mind Center at the University of Sydney, told The Drum that Mr Ingle’s experience was very common – particularly among people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“Obsessive-compulsive disorder is actually one of the rarer conditions until people go out and do community surveys and find that it’s quite common,” says Dr Hickie.
“They didn’t want to talk about it or share these experiences. They were ashamed and the idea of revealing what happened was very difficult.”
The National Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey shows that more than 50 per cent of Australians have a mental health problem and are not receiving care.
But Dr Hickie says when people do something to cope, including watching TikTok videos, it can encourage them to recognize their problems and seek support.
“What is actually happening is that people are not avoiding care, which is what doctors and others are concerned about,” Dr Hickie said.
What are the risks of self-diagnosis?
Misdiagnosis or overdiagnosis are some of the risks that come with using the internet to self-diagnose.
“In the consulting room, it can be difficult to deal with what a patient sees on social media,” says Dr. Alexander.
For example, when a celebrity shares a positive experience with a colonoscopy and suggests that everyone get one, “without considering that not everyone needs it,” says Dr. Alexander.
“For many, the risks of the procedure outweigh the potential benefits.”
Misdiagnosis is also a very real possibility.
“A healthcare professional can make mistakes, but we have the knowledge and training to rule out red flags—these are serious conditions—and we try to have safety net patients to make sure nothing is missed,” says Dr. Alexander.
“For example, I can examine your abdomen, rule out appendicitis and other emergencies, and if it’s gastritis I suspect, I can suggest we follow up within 48 hours to make sure your symptoms have improved.”
Despite his positive experience, Mr. Ingle also accepts risks.
“The concern here is that people are misdiagnosing themselves,” he says.
“I think what’s missing from this picture is that even when you go through traditional diagnostic pathways, you’re often misdiagnosed anyway.”
There is also a risk that people may over-diagnose themselves.
“Maybe there’s nothing wrong, so they turn to these platforms almost as an ego boost to get a diagnosis,” Mr Ingle said.
However, he also sees the benefits of finding information on the Internet.
“Only through online communities can you find people who are going through exactly what you’re going through.”
How to make good use of ‘Dr Google’
Dr. Google can be used meaningfully especially for mental health issues.
When people share their experiences of mental illness online, Dr Hickie says, “they’re actually demonstrating, describing, not filling out a checklist” of what it might be affecting their lives.
“They’re more alive and engaged, and people can get a better idea from that.”
Dr. Alexander agrees.
“I think it could be great for breaking down the stigma, especially in the mental health field,” she says.
“With people sharing their stories, their experiences, and being open, I’ve seen more patients willing to come forward, share their stories, and seek help for the symptoms they’ve been struggling with in silence.”
But it’s important to stay vigilant and know that social media has great potential for good and harm.
Dr Alexander points to the spread of the COVID-19 vaccine in Australia as an example.
“It was very positive that influencers supported public health initiatives and promoted them on their platforms,” he says.
“However, we’ve also seen how devastating it can be, in many cases spreading misinformation about vaccines and face masks and undermining public health initiatives.”
Mr Ingle says the internet is quietly providing a wealth of information for people suffering from OCD and other conditions.
“We’re always trying to understand these very real human conditions that exist,” he says.
“It’s not that these diagnoses are becoming more frequent — it’s that we’re getting better at recognizing and knowing what they are.”