Why do we like to pathologize normal behavior online?


Did you enjoy reading as a child? I’m sorry to be the one telling you this, but the precious hours you spent reading the Harry Potter books were really just your body’s way of dissociating itself in uncomfortable surroundings (also RIP to your idea of JK Rowling as a decent person). Do you sometimes forget to text back your friends? It’s probably, definitely, because of past trauma, and certainly not the natural result of a culture in which we’re expected to be socially available at all times. Better have an online therapist! Do you find it hard to concentrate in your office job, where you spend eight hours a day doing boring tasks in front of a screen? I hate to be the one telling you this, but there’s probably something wrong with the chemicals in your brain.

When it comes to the internet, just about anything you do can be evidence of some troubling pathology. Social media can undeniably be a great resource for people with mental illness, alongside people with ADHD and people somewhere on the autism spectrum. A condition like ADHD, for example, is still considered underdiagnosed (especially in women) and raising awareness about it could lead people to a diagnosis they sorely need. But as with many things online, there is a downside to a free and entirely unregulated flow of information.

On Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, the phenomenon of people attributing diagnoses to everyday behavior is widespread. No matter how harmless the trait in question is, someone, somewhere on the internet, is eager to tell you that possessing it is evidence of a permanent medical condition or disorder. “Sometimes doctors are criticized for medicalizing things, but the public can do that too,” Dr Jon Van Niekerk, from the general adult faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told iD.

“The problem of diagnosis [online], and people who present themselves as mental health experts when they’re not, is that you can actually create more anxiety: if you’re wrong, you’re going to over-diagnose, then something from normal becomes pathologized. But on the other hand, “you might be reassuring someone, when that’s really not what they need.” Most of the time when people come to see their GP or mental health professional, we do physical exams to make sure that [the symptoms aren’t part of] an underlying physical health condition, so you need to be careful not to miss this.

The idea that people with ADHD are “relatable” has become something of a meme in particular. It’s very, very easy to look at a symptom and think “that’s me,” especially when presented without context. Everyone has trouble concentrating sometimes; most people have lost a bunch of keys or arrived late for an appointment. But having a few symptoms of a syndrome doesn’t necessarily mean you have a disorder — something that can get lost in the “if you do (x), then you are (x)” sort of message.

“There is a spectrum,” says Dr. Van Niekerk. Let’s take the example of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder): “Being impulsive, or sometimes having mood swings, especially if you are a teenager, is part of normal maturation, it does not mean that you have a borderline personality or that you’re narcissistic. There’s a lot of misunderstanding of these terms.

Social media encourages reductive or sweeping statements, which means these kinds of distinctions are often flattened by the way we talk about mental health and neurodivergence online. Since its platforms are mostly limited to 60-second videos, 10-slide infographics, or 280-character microblogs, it rarely provides the space to tackle these topics with detail or nuance. According to Dr Natalie Hendry, from RMIT University Melbourne’s Center for Digital Ethnography Research, and co-author of a new book on Tumblr, this effect is driven by a number of factors.

The main culprit is, of course, our good friend late capitalism. “Anytime you create space on social media for people to talk about these things, there’s also a new market that pops up,” she says. “People on TikTok are obsessed with passive income. The pandemic and people losing their jobs and money means people are finding other ways to build income. It can be creating and monetizing Canva spreadsheets to help you plan your day while you’re dealing with ADHD, or marketing journals with cool little graphics to help you deal with your trauma.” There’s this market that sits alongside people who share tips and tricks.” This market – and the financial imperatives that come with it – sit alongside the culture of diagnosing foreigners with mental illnesses and disabilities. support and many good intentions, it should be kept in mind that some of those involved in promoting these diagnoses have a vested interest in doing so.

Influence and money can help explain the motivations of influencers and content producers, but why are mass users so eager to participate? There seems to be a real and widespread desire to interpret our own behavior through a medical lens. According to PE Moskowitz, author of the lucid psychological newsletter MentalHellth, this phenomenon is less about individual brain chemistry and more about the society in which we live.

“I think people feel overwhelmed by the internet, and overwhelmed by society as a whole in terms of confusion and isolation. If you’re 18 or 19 and you grew up in the suburbs, you don’t you don’t have access to a lot of real community – most of your community is online. And online is a very confusing space,” she says. “I feel like that kind of categorization of mental illness in these very specific things helps you find communities.” Which isn’t entirely a bad thing, is it? It’s great to inspire young people to seek out “real” help offline, but the truth is that these “more legitimate” methods are often inaccessible. Dr. Van Niekerk acknowledges that in order for people to receive the right care, “we need the government to give us enough resources”. reality we have to face is that these neb social communities ulous is the best care people can get right now, and at least something is better than nothing.

“I think it’s great to be able to relate to people and find a community based on your traumas and how screwed up and out of place you feel in society,” says PE. The problem is, however, that these overly pathologized views of mental health and neurodivergence usually invite us to locate the root of the problem firmly within ourselves and as fixed parts of our identity. “If more and more of us all feel so inadequate that we need medication, then maybe we can all collectively realize that there is something bigger going on that has nothing to do with it. do with the chemical composition of our brain. I think we have to realize that it’s something bigger than that.

In the past, criticism of over-pathologization often came from the conservative right. According to Dr. Hendry, these conversations are not new. “There’s a book from 1966 that conservatives love called the Triumph of Therapeutics by Philip Rieff,” she tells me. “He argues that as psychology became more dominant in the Western world, people became increasingly obsessed with searching for meaning through their emotional worlds, using psychological language and ideas.”

“The triumph of therapy has since been reposted by conservative press ISI books, as its narrative in terms of what the right is currently calling “snowflakes”, “vulnerability” and “being triggered”, sadly seems quite contemporary. Clearly these ideas are still prevalent on the right today, where there is widespread mockery of safe spaces, content ratings and all manner of conditions, based on the assumption that people exaggerate their distress to attention.

But there are ways to critique these cultures online without being an alt-right troll. Whatever you think about pathologizing normal behavior online, we should still believe people when they tell us they’re hurting – especially in 2021, when your safest assumption is that virtually everyone around you exists in a state of spiritual agony.

“We’re all living these lives of fucking brutal desperation right now, because capitalism is only getting worse,” PE says “We all feel isolated. But for some reason people can’t connect these things. To me, the reason people kill themselves by using opioids is the same reason why you feel so completely unable to function on a daily basis that you need seven different drugs for mental health. live in this society.

It seems reasonable to suggest that when someone thinks they have ADHD, BPD, PTSD or something else, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have it. It is possible to be wrong, especially given the wealth of misinformation out there. But even the suspicion that you have a disorder suggests that Something is not fair, and we should take it seriously. Otherwise, why would you categorize your behavior if you didn’t have a nagging feeling that something was missing or that it might be possible to live your life in a way that wasn’t so difficult?

That’s not to say that drugs aren’t often needed and helpful, but that the answers may lie outside the current medical model. What’s interesting about the culture of online pathologization – which its adherents often claim exists in opposition to this framework – is that it still maintains its exact value system.

The existence of this online culture is an indictment both of the lack of support available and of the larger climate that makes people miserable in the first place. It may also prevent us from recognizing these external factors. Where it exists, our unhappiness, our inability to function, should be a reproach. ” Display [my ADHD symptoms] as a symptom of something bigger in our society that prevents me from being able to function as I wish, as opposed to something inherent in the brain, is very important to me”, says PE “Because it gives me the impression the world is changing; that we can build a better society where these things aren’t such a big deal, instead of thinking that I’m hopelessly broken.

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