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In Defense of Self-Diagnosis

By Anuksha S. Wickramasinghe, Crimson Opinion Writer
​Anuksha S. Wickramasinghe ’24 is a Neuroscience concentrator and Crimson Editorial editor in Mather House. Her column “Adhdventures” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

This piece is a letter to the girl who’d spend hours on Google, desperately trying to find anyone, anybody’s story, to know that she wasn’t the only one who felt the way she did. It’s for anyone who needs an answer but knows that obtaining the piece of paper that confirms it all “officially” is a near impossibility. For those seeking, hoping, wishing to know that something’s going on, that I am not the bad, the wrong, the broken thing.

Years before a formal diagnosis, I recognized that I wouldn’t be able to keep going without answers. After much reading and research, I came to the conclusion that I likely had depression and anxiety. I self-diagnosed. Now, that doesn’t mean it was something I announced to the world or told everyone I met. Instead, I kept it to myself, afraid that I’d be wrong and invalidating other people’s experiences.

As Jailene Ramos ’24, who also self-diagnosed prior to receiving formal ADHD and clinical depression diagnoses, described, “I would shove it down because I also felt like self-diagnosing myself was fake.”

Though I’d recovered from my depressive symptoms by the time I was professionally diagnosed, I was correct about having anxiety and ADHD.

As Ramos tells me and I agree, a professional diagnosis provided significant relief to know, “I wasn't lying. I wasn't faking it.”

As if mental illness and neurodiversity didn’t have enough stigma, self-diagnosis doesn’t deserve all the shame and invalidation. A quick Google search will populate plenty of sources warning you of the dangers. While I’ll readily admit that receiving a “formal” or “professional” diagnosis is more ideal than self-diagnosing, these perspectives fail to acknowledge how difficult it is to get professionally diagnosed. Diagnosis is not accessible.

Take Alyx Britton ’21’s diagnostic journey. Britton began to suspect they had ADHD during the pandemic. After doing a lot of research on their own, they brought up the possibility of having ADHD to their psychiatrist, where they were met with doubt. The diagnostic process wasn’t any easier. For example, the ADHD diagnostic process often requires an “observer form,” typically filled out by someone who has known you since childhood. For Britton, who has an atypical home situation, it was impossible to find someone to fill it out. Eventually, their doctor interviewed them, but those conversations left them feeling “really dismissed.” After several months, their doctor relented that they “might have ADHD” but did not formally diagnose them.

For Britton, seeking out a formal and definitive diagnosis with ADHD would have been virtually impossible at that time.

“Essentially, I would have had to go to somebody off-campus, pay. I think it was a couple $100 for all the evaluation,” they said. “I was like, I'm broke. I'm on financial aid. I'm supporting myself. I have to pay rent.”

Steph S. Brecq ’24 also describes having a story where diagnosis “wasn’t something that was accessible” to her for most of her life. She explains that though she was aware that she had different mental health issues growing up, it was in her senior year of high school, after turning 18, that she sought out a psychiatrist now that she “could do it without any documentation being mailed back to [her] mother via insurance.” She called virtually every psychiatrist in her radius in the state of New Jersey, where she’s from, none of which were available or accepted her insurance or had availability. Upon arriving at college and receiving “Harvard’s good fancy insurance,” she looked for out of network care outside of Harvard University Health Services and found a psychiatrist. Brecq is now diagnosed with ADHD, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Assuming you have the resources, the diagnostic process is still incredibly difficult to navigate, especially in the midst of a mental health crisis. Anna Roodnitsky ’25 at Dartmouth College, currently on medical withdrawal due to chronic depression, explains, “If you don't have someone who's emotionally stable and mentally strong enough to help you through the administrative process of getting you connected with proper mental professionals, then you just end up suffering.”

So, if it were simple to get a diagnosis, I and others would have much earlier. Kendall Shields ’24, tells me, “If, for example, Harvard offered a free autism evaluation or assessment, I would definitely take advantage of that.” Shields was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic disorder that causes noncancerous tumors to grow throughout one’s body. She identifies with neurodiversity on the basis of having brain tumors that “affect the way [her] brain works.” Though Shields was never formally evaluated for autism, 40 to 50 percent of people with her genetic disorder are autistic.

For Shields, identifying with the neurodivergent label and broader autism experience has been beneficial, from “connecting with other autistic people at Harvard” to finding resources and mechanisms to “navigate the world better.”

“I'd rather empower those few people who are self-diagnosing for the wrong reasons — it means that everybody else is getting the help they need — than oppress and force everybody who actually needs help down.” Ramos says. She captures the fundamental defense for self-diagnosis, as she continues: “If somebody was self-diagnosing themselves for the wrong reasons, they still need help, right? It's still a cry for help, even if they don't know it.”

​Anuksha S. Wickramasinghe ’24 is a Neuroscience concentrator and Crimson Editorial editor in Mather House. Her column “Adhdventures” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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