The last few months of the year bring blooming Jacaranda trees and an overwhelming sense of dread. With exam season around the corner, thousands of students are scrambling to shove their ducks in a neat little row in order to finish the semester. Most people on campus are anxious, caffeinated, and ready for a long term to come to an end.
The common experience of a panic attack or throwing up before an exam – after pulling an all nighter – has suddenly become troublingly normal. Even though we may laugh and joke about having crazy levels of stress or battling with procrastination, are we not maybe missing the flickering red lights?
The intense amount of pressure we experience during this time can be debilitating and may leave us pondering the idea of possibly living with an underlying mental illness such as an anxiety or attention deficit disorder. We see and hear these names everywhere: on Tiktok, health blogs, Instagram pages, and the lips of everyone around us. Without a doubt, our circumstances create a breeding ground for these illnesses with the insane amount of stress we endure. We may even start to label ourselves as someone with a certain disorder. But can self-diagnosing a mental illness be a weapon, or can it become a self-inflicted Achilles heel?
The act of self-diagnosis is not uncommon. In fact, according to an article by Jason Crosby on Thriveworks, 44% of people in the US alone have diagnosed themselves with a mental illness. ‘Doc’, a general practitioner from Johannesburg who wishes to remain anonymous, told PDBY that in most cases, mental illnesses like anxiety disorders are actually self-diagnosed. It is not abnormal to experience a phase of life that is considerably more stressful than others, and pinpointing the cause of stress can lessen the heavy load.
Self-diagnosis can alleviate a substantial amount of confusion. We live in an era where mental illnesses are not as stigmatised as when our parents grew up. As a result, we may find that the ones who raised us did not see the signs we so clearly see now.
Self-diagnosis can be a light- bulb moment. Finally, we can blame the shivering and heart palpitations or lack of energy on something definite. We can connect the feelings to something that has been scientifically studied and universally experienced. And this is also almost always the first step to getting professional help. It removes the doubt that often keeps us away from talking to someone. Suddenly, we are not alone. We can take a few steps back and remind ourselves that sometimes our brains just do funny things.
On the other side of the spectrum lies the dangers of self-diagnosis. The combination of a fear of failing and the dopamine rush from academic validation can make us desperate for a “quick fix”. We may look for a solution that will spare us time and energy. We do not always have the means to book an appointment with a specialist. So, when we find out that our roommate or a person in class sells pills that can help us focus, it may be tempting to take the chance.
It is illegal to share medication, and even more so to share or sell scheduled medications. According to Doc, Schedule 6 drugs like Concerta or Ritalin (methylphenidate) cross the blood brain barrier and in some people, may result in worse anxiety, dizziness, or other central nervous system symptoms. Buying unauthorised medications from students can easily lead to drug addictions, as it is highly likely that these substances are not legally manufactured and can contain various illegal (and sometimes deadly) ingredients.
Treating a self-diagnosed mental illness in this way can be a very risky and slippery slope. It is also important to remember that a mental illness should not define you. A person with anxiety is not necessarily an “anxious person”. The diagnosis should be a tool, not an obstacle. It is thus important to consult with a professional if worries about a possible underlying mental illness are causing even more worry.
So, to self-diagnose, or not to self-diagnose, that is the question.