The Danger Of Armchair Diagnosing Someone You Don't Know (Even A Celeb)

In a culture with a robust, free flow of information, those of us fortunate to have internet access can research virtually any topic, like mental health, and get thousands of hits in seconds. Access to reliable research is powerful, but ultimately it won't make us an expert on, say, depression.

21 million people in the U.S. have experienced at least one major depressive episode per the National Institute of Mental Health. What you may not know is how many physical illnesses have symptoms that strongly resemble depression, but aren't depression — anemia, diabetes, hypercalcemia (too much calcium in the blood), and hypothyroidism, to name just a few. This demonstrates how there's no way we could possibly have the big picture about what a friend or celebrity is going through. You're not a therapist and neither are your friends. Armchair psychology, or a diagnosis without expertise, is dangerous.

Here's why. When we label someone with a mental illness or personality disorder (like bipolar, borderline personality disorder, or narcissism) to explain away their unpleasant or destructive behavior, we might be over-dramatizing someone's lousy day. Or we could be minimizing the intense suffering of those disorders. The diagnosis may not be remotely accurate and adds to the stigma around mental illness. It may make someone feel shame, and then seek treatment for the wrong condition. And besides, a real diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed of, but rather an invitation for kindness and proper treatment.

We never fully know what's happening when a celebrity has a breakdown

Because of their white-hot fame, an A-list celebrity's every move is scrutinized. If they are privately dealing with mental, emotional, or physical health issues and then succumb to a public breakdown, the tabloid media pounce and publish exploitative articles and photos. This feeds an appetite for armchair speculation.

In 2007, Britney Spears, who was at the height of her fame, was in a custody battle with her ex-husband who wouldn't allow her to see her children. In an act of intense frustration that was captured by photographers, she shaved off her hair at a salon. A few days later, she attacked a photographer and a car with an umbrella. The following year she was taken to a psychiatric hospital. With no context or empathy, she was publicly mocked and labeled crazy.

Kanye West has had too many controversial incidents to count, with one of the more recent being a television appearance declaring his admiration for Hitler. Vocally antisemitic, West has also spoken about his struggles with bipolar disorder. It's fair to say that something serious is or was happening with both of these artists. That doesn't give a non-therapist license to diagnose them or to assume that any personal friend's behavior that's similar to a celebrity's means they share the same condition. Kanye and Britney both dealt with very public divorces, normally handled privately. One encouraging trend we're seeing is celebrities who are normalizing couples therapy.

Some potential reasons why we label and (mis)diagnose

In the study, "Are Attitudes Contagious?", the study's authors wanted to look at how non-verbal signals impacted attitudes towards a stranger. They found that when a group of people gave disapproving or cold non-verbal cues to one person, that person was perceived in a negative light. Perhaps this helps explain the phenomenon of people jumping on a bandwagon in agreement about someone's perceived shortcomings.

We do have an in-built negativity bias that is trying to protect us at all times by scanning for threats. As humans, we label ourselves and others to quickly make sense of an overwhelmingly complex world, and to determine whether someone is a threat or not. We may assign labels as a projection of who we are and as a declaration of who we're not. But when we reduce someone to a few labels, this keeps our unconscious bias intact. Unfortunately, it prevents us from learning positive and unexpected qualities about that person. 

In "The Ethics of Armchair Diagnosis" on PsychCentral, Rebecca Lee shares that our irritation with others' behavior may cause us to toss a wrong diagnosis at them, like calling a significant other "bipolar" to describe a bad mood. This pathologizes normal human emotions and shames people we actually just disagree with. We've also seen the rise of psychologists with YouTube channels explaining narcissism and other disorders; this may empower us to inappropriately think of ourselves as equally qualified. We're not.

The consequences of armchair diagnosing

Although there is a healthy dissemination of information, such as qualified therapists sharing about mental health on YouTube, the opposite is happening on TikTok. Per a 2023 CBS News story by Ash-Har Quraishi, Amy Corral, and Ryan Beard, teens and young people are using TikTok as a search engine — "the hashtag #mental health was searched over 67 billion times." Because of the way the algorithm works, these searches and views also push harmful content into people's feeds, including information about self-harm. 'Social media therapy' means influencers are sharing their own subjective experiences as if they were facts and then transitioning into diagnosing, or more accurately, misdiagnosing others.

One teen started believing she had bipolar disorder, which she did not. It worsened her anxiety and she ended up in a rehab facility for 56 days to detox off social media. Over 1200 families have banded together to sue TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, and Meta over claims they knowingly negatively impact their children's mental health.

If you broke your leg, your doctor would set it in a cast. No one would shame you about it. And yet when someone is struggling with their emotions, habits, or behaviors, we might insult them with a psychiatric label. Mislabeling causes harm. Compassion is truly supportive.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.