It was more than two decades ago that I fell ill with bipolar disorder aged nineteen, whilst travelling around South East Asia on a gap year before university. During my first high, I vividly remember gleefully chasing my travelling companions around a houseboat in Kashmir. But I’ll never forget the agonies of the inevitable low which followed, being paralysed by depression amongst the throngs of young party-goers at the Koh Samui island moon party in Thailand – and being bewildered by what was happening to me.

As to the question, should we be using the internet to self-diagnose? The internet has been my best friend and advisor over the last two decades.

The mood cycling went on for months and months. I remember racking my brains trying to make sense what was taking place – did something terrible happen to me in my childhood to cause me to experience these symptoms? What on earth was going on?

Mental health education

Back in the late 1980s, education about mental health was definitely not on the school curriculum. So, I had no frame of reference for understanding what was happening to me. No sympathetic storylines in the TV soaps about a bipolar character. No celebrities like Stephen Fry to raise awareness of the condition. No public understanding. Certainly, no lessons at school about mental health. Just unchallenged and endemic stigma and ignorance.

So, I am baffled that the Royal College of Psychiatrists isn’t celebrating the introduction of mental health to our secondary schools, campaigning as it has for many years for greater public understanding of mental illness.

The problem of under-diagnosis

Firstly, under-diagnosis – not over-diagnosis – remains one of the most shocking failures of mental health treatment the world over. Worldwide, more than 70% of young people and adults with mental illness do not get any mental health treatment. If you have bipolar disorder, like me, it takes on average 10 years to get a diagnosis. This is partly about the lack of resource for mental health services, but it’s also about a lack of knowledge about mental illness amongst the wider public.

Secondly, so what if a few more people incorrectly self-diagnose? For every extra young person mistakenly turning up at their GP’s surgery thinking they have depression or OCD, there will be more young people seeking help for mental health problems they would otherwise not have sought help for for several years. This alone is reason enough to celebrate this important development in our educational system.

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, seems to regret that the young are now “bombarded with online information” about mental health. I rejoice that public knowledge and understanding of mental health have been transformed over the last decade. The trickle of mental health-related content on TV and radio, on social media like YouTube and Twitter, in newspapers and magazines and across the web generally has become a flood. Celebrities, who in the past wouldn’t dream of talking about their mental health problems, seem to be falling over themselves to talk about their own experiences. The benefits of all of this is self-evident. One example is when the bipolar character of teenager Stacey Slater appeared in the soap EastEnders in 2004, the Sun reported how a young woman’s family correctly diagnosed her symptoms as being similar to Stacy’s, getting her a referral for treatment by mental health services.

Welcoming the mental health curriculum

This is why I welcome anything which improves public understanding of mental illness. I look forward to discussing with my own children, who are at secondary school, what they’ve learnt, when they come home from school after studying this module in class. 

As to the question, should we be using the internet to self-diagnose? The internet has been my best friend and advisor over the last two decades. It took me 15 years to get diagnosed with co-morbid social anxiety disorder after much reading about the condition online and from self-help books – my psychologists and psychiatrists initially poo-pooed the idea, until I saw a leading specialist who confirmed the diagnosis.

So, Dr Dubicka is right of course to advise any young person, worried they might have a mental health disorder, to go and see their doctor. But I’d advise anyone – at whatever stage they might be on their mental health journey – to read up about whatever they think is wrong with them. A patient informed is a patient forearmed – information is power.