The difference between self-diagnosis and self-advocacy
Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 05/04/2023
Self-advocacy is educating yourself on your symptoms and behaviors regarding your health and then speaking up to your health care provider. Self-diagnosis is going a step further and labeling your experience. Let’s take a closer look at each of these phrases and ways they may serve you.
What Is Self-Diagnosis?
If you have ever turned to the internet to diagnose health concerns, you’re not alone. According to a 2019 survey by LetsGetChecked, 65% of Americans have attempted to self-diagnose their conditions with a Google search.
Self-diagnosis is an attempt to determine if your experiences are actually symptoms pointing toward a specific health condition. A person is self-diagnosing when they ascribe a specific, clinical condition to their experience without the expertise or advice of a health professional.
Although it contains the word “self,” self-diagnosis is usually somewhat of a collaborative effort. Many people who self-diagnose seek information from a variety of sources, including:
- Online articles
- Symptom checkers
- Social media
- Friends and family
- Spiritual leaders
The key resource missing from a self-diagnosis is a doctor or healthcare professional.
Should You Diagnose Yourself?
While the urge to research symptoms is understandable, self-diagnosis is rarely a good idea. Healthcare professionals strongly discourage self-diagnosis for a number of reasons. If you self-diagnose, you might:
- Miss symptoms pointing toward a more serious condition or a condition that requires emergency care
- Misinterpret each symptom as its own condition, when in fact they could all fall under a single diagnosis
- Cause yourself unnecessary distress by believing it may be the most severe diagnosis possible
- Miss important variables that could affect the final diagnosis, such as personal medical history or family medical history
- Misinterpret symptoms of a mental health condition (e.g., nausea caused by anxiety) as symptoms of a physical health condition (e.g., nausea caused by a dairy intolerance), or vice versa
- Neglect to take into account symptoms that may not disrupt your life, but primarily affect the people around you (e.g., narcissistic tendencies)
How to Get a Professional Diagnosis for Mental Illness
Talk to Your Primary Care Physician
Many people know to go to the doctor if they have a physical health concern, but may wonder where they should start if they’re concerned about their mental health. In general, the first step is the same: Speak with your primary care physician first.
Your doctor can rule out physical health conditions that may have similar symptoms to mental health conditions. Additionally, if you’re unsure whether pursuing mental healthcare is the next best step, starting with your primary care doctor can help allay your fears. Hopefully, you already have a good relationship with your doctor and can trust that you’re getting helpful, accurate information during your visit.
If you don’t have a primary care physician or can’t afford one, consider seeking care at a free clinic. A 2014 survey by AmeriCares found that about 64% of free clinics offer mental health services, including:
- Assessment and diagnosis
- Medication management
- Mental health counseling
- Case management
Find a Therapist
Your primary care doctor may or may not offer a specific mental health diagnosis. Most likely, they will recommend you seek out a therapist or psychiatrist for an expert opinion.
There are many different factors you should consider before choosing a therapist. View our guide to learn more about how to make an informed choice. Then, browse our directory of qualified therapists to find one that’s right for you.
Barriers to Mental Healthcare
It’s an unfortunate truth that mental healthcare is not nearly as accessible as physical healthcare. Many people who want a professional diagnosis may find it difficult to get one for a number of factors, including:
- Financial concerns: Seeing a doctor of any sort may simply be unaffordable.
- Lack of insurance: Even if you have insurance, it may not cover mental health services, or it may have a high co-pay.
- No PTO: It can be difficult to find the time to see a doctor for any reason if you are unable to take time off from your job to do so.
- Lack of telehealth options: Online therapy is a great tool making mental health services more accessible for many. However, those without reliable internet service or digital devices may not be able to access a telehealth option.
- Cultural stigma: Cultural perceptions regarding mental health have come a long way in recent decades. However, stigma still exists in many communities.
- Discrimination: The healthcare industry has a history of discriminating against certain people based on societal factors, such as race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class. Although much has been done to correct this, some people belonging to these communities may still struggle to trust healthcare professionals with their personal health. Some may have very recent experiences of discrimination confirming these misgivings.
What Is Self-Advocacy?
As noted above, self-advocacy is educating yourself on your symptoms and using this information to stand up for yourself. It’s the ability to champion your interests and voice your concerns.
The roots of self-advocacy lie in the disability community and the disability rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. People in the disability community recognized the power in being one’s own advocate and representing one’s own interests instead of relying solely on the systems in place and allies, such as parents, friends, or caretakers. Self-advocacy empowers the individual to take action for one’s own interests.
In particular, self-advocacy is a great alternative to self-diagnosis and an excellent skill to practice in a doctor’s office. Whether you’re seeking physical or mental healthcare, self-advocacy is encouraged as part of a healthy process of diagnosis and treatment.
How to Advocate for Your Own Mental Health
Learn from Reputable Sources
It’s okay to be curious about your physical and mental health and to seek information online if you’re experiencing unwanted symptoms. However, make sure you’re using reputable sources to conduct your research.
Reputable mental health sources should be reviewed by psychologists and other mental health experts for their accuracy. At Therapist.com, for example, our team of clinical psychologists reviews every single piece of content before it is published online.
Be Careful with Online Symptom Checkers
Feel free to use symptom checkers from reputable sources, but be careful when and how you use them. The 2019 survey by LetsGetChecked found that 74% of those who turned to the internet to self-diagnose ended up worrying more about their health than before. Forty-three percent falsely convinced themselves that they had a serious disease.
To avoid the urge to self-diagnose with symptom checkers, try to put boundaries on when you use them. A good place to start is to avoid using them late at night or getting in the habit of checking them on a routine basis. Remember that a symptom checker cannot provide an official diagnosis—it should only be used to help you determine what you may or may not want to discuss with your doctor or therapist.
Prepare for Your Appointment
Before your appointment, write down the symptoms you’re experiencing and your thoughts. It can be intimidating to share symptoms that may make you feel confused or vulnerable. By writing them down, you can make a promise to yourself to say everything on your list during your appointment.
Remember to be open to your doctor or therapist having a different opinion. Avoid coming to your appointment just to say, “This is the condition I have, and here’s why you should agree with me.” Self-advocacy is about standing up for yourself, but it’s not about being your own doctor or therapist. Let your doctor know what you’re thinking, and be prepared to listen, too.
Ask your doctor or therapist follow-up questions for clarity, especially if they seem to ignore or discount your own concerns. Healthcare is a collaborative process, and as your own advocate, you want to make sure your therapist or doctor hears and understands your concerns.
Seek a Second Opinion
If you’re dissatisfied with your diagnosis, it’s okay to seek a second opinion from another doctor or mental health professional. It’s important to feel heard. However, remember to keep an open mind. If doctor after doctor tells you the same thing, you may need to adjust your own expectations and trust in their expertise.
Find Affordable Mental Healthcare
Find a Therapist Near You
Browse our online directory to find a therapist near you. Many therapists specialize in therapies and treatments that are best suited for specific mental illnesses, such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you do not yet have a diagnosis and are unsure which therapy is right for you, it’s a good idea to start with a therapist who offers a more universal treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Get Help Now
If you are having a mental health crisis or emergency, help is available now:
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Suicide Prevention Online Chat
- National Domestic Abuse Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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