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Please Stop Calling This 'Selfie Problem' a Mental Disorder

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

According to media headlines, there’s a new fancy mental disorder in town. It’s called “selfitis,” and it’s when a person feels compelled to constantly take photos of themselves and post them on social media.

Here’s the problem: Selfitis isn’t an official mental disorder, and highlighting research that pathologizes behavior with cutesie disorder names isn’t what the mental health community needs right now.

The term “selfitis” was coined in 2014 when a satirical article claimed the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognized compulsive selfie-taking as a real disorder. (The APA now has a webpage dedicated to letting you know selfitis is not, in fact, a real disorder.)

Inspired by the fake report, psychologists Mark D. Griffiths and Janarthanan Balakrishnan decided to see if the concept of selfitis had any merit. After surveying the selfie behavior of 400 participants from India, they published their findings in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, declaring selfitis a real condition. They also developed a scale, the Selfitis Behavior Scale, to measure its severity.

“Whilst the story was revealed to be a hoax, it didn’t mean that the condition of selfitis didn’t exist,” explained selfitis researcher Dr. Mark Griffiths. “We have now appeared to confirm its existence.”

It’s easy to roll your eyes (as I did) at the term “selfitis.” I mean, there was a reason it was initially developed satirically. But the issue I have isn’t with researchers who study selfies, or even research that explores if excessive selfie-taking is bad for your mental health. My issue is that media sites are declaring selfitis a “genuine mental disorder” based on a single study and its researchers are allowing their work to be interpreted this way.

First of all, mental illnesses are not discovered based on a single study. In order to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a diagnosis must be vigorously tested by research and go through a review process, Dr. David Susman, a clinical psychologist, told The Mighty. 

“You can’t use one study to say now we have this disorder. I don’t find that responsible,” he said.

In a piece about how media coverage influences scientific research — or at least, public perception of scientific research — Washington Post contributor Robert Gebelhoff argued that sensationalized media coverage of scientific research is usually distorted and that journalists will pull out the “sexiest” element of new research to entice readers, sometimes sacrificing accuracy in the process. He wrote:

In between, media agents for research institutions have become adept at turning complicated scientific jargon into compelling press releases — usually at the expense of accuracy. Reporters crop down those releases even further, stretching, exaggerating and torturing academic papers until their original meaning of the study has been completely lost.

Even when the meaning is not lost, the media is quick to report on one study as if it were fact. But in a 2015 investigation, a team of global researchers were only able to replicate about 40 percent of the results from 100 previously published studies in cognitive and social psychology. This means research that was once presented as fact might eventually be disproven. Unfortunately, once sensationalized reports are public, it’s hard to take them back.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be diagnosing mental illnesses. In a blog post about the process of diagnosing mental illnesses, Susman says getting a proper diagnosis can be a source of hope and relief, pointing you in the right direction of treatment. In the more technical sense, insurance companies require a formal diagnosis in order to reimburse a provider for your care and treatment.

But just because receiving a mental illness diagnosis can be a positive experience for people who are struggling, doesn’t mean we should labeling every cluster of behavior and thought-pattern we can a mental illness, especially with such little evidence to support it. Dr. Allen Frances, who was head of the DSM-IV Task Force and has been openly critical about the newest DSM-V, argues that the rate we’re developing mental illness diagnoses has surpassed our actual knowledge about mental disorders and their treatment. “There can be no dramatic improvements in psychiatric diagnosis until we make a fundamental leap in our understanding of what causes mental disorders,” he wrote in a piece for the Psychiatric Times.

The issue in mental health isn’t that we don’t have enough diagnoses — the issue is that we need to spend more time figuring out how to help the people we’ve already labeled. Speaking out against selfitis, Sir Simon Wessely, professor of psychological medicine at King’s College London, told the The Telegraph, “There is a tendency to try and label a whole range of complicated and complex human behaviors with a single word. But that is dangerous because it can give something reality where it really has none.”

Everyone deserves support, and we should never undermine or belittle someone who feels like their mental health is affected by compulsively taking selfies or who needs validation from social media. But as journalists, we need to be more thoughtful before calling something “a genuine mental disorder.” We shouldn’t just cover mental health stories we think are going to go viral. We need to talk about treating and supporting those with established mental illnesses as well as cover less sensational research. If you want to do work that helps those with mental illness, instead of taking a selfie next to a new 10-inch DSM let’s focus on getting people the care they need.

Lead photo via jakubzak

Originally published: December 21, 2017
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