Right now, anyone with an internet connection and 15 minutes to spare can head to psychologytoday.com, where an online assessment will tell them if they might show signs of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and panic disorder. For the really time-strapped, a similar quiz on psycom.net promises to unlock the same answers in three minutes or less. And at the website of the organization Mental Health America, you can choose the test you want to take: PTSD, psychosis, depression.
I confess that I’ve found myself taking these online screenings more than once, with the passive curiosity of someone taking a benign BuzzFeed quiz (and BuzzFeed, speaking of, offers an anxiety test, too). Obviously, receiving affirmation from the internet that I love, say, the color pink is wholly different from reading online that I may show symptoms of a mood disorder. And I know that it’s a bad idea to diagnose oneself in the absence of a professional. But still, there’ s something distinctly appealing about taking these online tests, even if some of them are easy to manipulate — and even if they do little more than suggest something I already might know.
Plenty of people seem to agree with me. Mental Health America alone administered online screenings to more than a million people in 2016. And just the fact that these quizzes exist in so many places — from mental-health-related sources to more mainstream sites — indicates that they have both widespread appeal and inherent click value. Mental health may be a notoriously undervalued sector of public health, but it seems that people are hungry for ways to understand theirs.
For better or worse, online mental-health tests can be an instantaneous source of comfort for someone bogged down by worry. “When we have a symptom, we Google it to death,” says psychologist Sanam Hafeez, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia Teachers College, the same way something like a simple zit can send you down a WebMD rabbit hole of skin diseases. Often, though, Googling is as far as we’ll go to investigate: “Going to a doctor will take time and money,” and often, “we don’t really want to know [the actual answer].” The fact that these tests are easily available and don’t cost anything makes them an appealing option, she says, just as seeing the answer we want to see can bring a sense of validation.
That isn’t necessarily always helpful — a parent using an online test to screen their child for ADHD, for example, may take the answer as all the proof they need, leading them to question conflicting conclusions from specialists who have actually seen their kid. “It just gives them the food that they need to run with their ideas, which is concerning,” Hafeez says. “As human beings, we are always seeking validation from some other outside source. You feel like you were right all along.”
There’s also a feeling of security that comes from being able to neatly place yourself into a box. Mental-health quizzes are appealing for the same thing personality quizzes are appealing: People like to be a part of a defined group. An online assessment, which has to spit out an answer, reliably offers that categorization.
“People definitely like black-and-white answers, which is why quizzes seem like they will be satisfying,” says Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center and a psychoanalyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. “They imagine they’ll get yes/no, you are this, you are that, and that’s more comforting than the vague gray zone of, Well, it could be some of this [diagnosis] if you see some of that [symptom].” On the other hand, adds, it’s also easy to reject the answer if you don’t like it, because it’s just an online test: “It gives people deniability.”
These tests clearly indicate that they’re not surefire diagnoses — Mental Health America, for example, writes that its screening tools are only a way to identify symptoms, and encourages people to share their results with a professional. And Saltz notes that the question-and-answer format is rarely enough to build a diagnosis on.
It’s important to consider a patient’s history and how they appear — all of the things a doctor might see in person that the internet can’t.
But that doesn’t mean they’re completely for naught. If a curious person takes a screening test and sees that they show some of the signs of depression, it might give them the impetus they need to actually seek professional help. In fact, given the stigma attached to mental-health issues, easing in to the process of getting care with an online quiz — something that can be done in the privacy of your own home — might make it easier to swallow the idea of doing more.
“There are people who are really unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the idea of going to see someone, who maybe can’t afford it or don’t live in an area where there’s much of it,” Saltz says. “This might be another step on their way to realizing that actually, they probably do [need to] speak with someone.”
Most of these screenings likely “tell you what you already probably knew but have had a hard time reckoning with yourself,” she says. But that confirmation can feel like legitimacy — as in, Yes, your feelings are valid and warrant consideration. It’s hard to overstate how powerful that can be.