About two years ago, Thekla Bollinger sent a comic to the text thread where she and her friends frequently exchanged memes. It lightheartedly described common ADHD symptoms. Usually the group acknowledged the relatability or humor whenever anyone shared a meme, but this time, the reaction was different.
“Everyone was like, ‘No, not really. I don’t really get that,’” the 28-year-old says. “This isn’t an everybody kind of thing.”
Bollinger had been quietly internalizing ADHD-related memes until she sought out a doctor last year who officially diagnosed her with the condition. She mentioned the memes to her doctor, who was enthusiastic about her online self-diagnosis. Suddenly, all the years of feeling paralyzed by indecision and self-perceived laziness made sense.
“It’s weird that a throwaway little scrap of funny internet culture has essentially vastly changed the trajectory of my life,” Bollinger says. “Which is nice, but also immensely strange.”
Memes are created with relatability and shareability in mind. A successful meme emotionally resonates with viewers, who then feel compelled to post or send around the photo or video. They’re a form of cultural currency that can help us identify, articulate and poke fun at a wide range of emotions and experiences. They can also influence our beliefs and behavior: Studies have shown that memes can effectively sway political preferences and disseminate information throughout a group.
Medical memes vary, but most capture some aspect of living with a health issue, such as brain fog stemming from an autoimmune disease or sleep problems commonly paired with a mood disorder. For those diagnosed with a given condition, a meme that illustrates the impact of a difficult symptom might feel validating. Other people might see the same meme and wonder, “Do I have that?”
While googling symptoms is hardly a new phenomenon, younger generations are becoming increasingly dependent on social platforms for medical information. The memeification of medical symptoms and health behaviors has created another path to self-diagnosis, which isn’t always a positive thing. Without proper guidance or context, this practice can cause paranoia and anxiety and open the door to unhelpful forms of self-treatment. Memes living on Instagram, TikTok and other sites can have an outsized influence on a person’s perception of their own health, whether or not they go see a doctor.
Dr. Max Harland, a dentist who cofounded the oral care platform Dentaly, started noticing patients referencing memes during appointments last September. Many patients, often during their first pandemic dental visit, believed they had gum issues, which they frequently explained using language Harland had seen in memes. Something as simplistic as “Flossing makes your gums bleed? False, not flossing makes your gums bleed!” had led a patient to seek out a diagnosis for bleeding gums based on their aversion to flossing. “Gums bleed due to varying causes, and not flossing isn’t one of them,” Harland says. So far, none of his patients who self-diagnosed via meme have been correct.
Harland doesn’t mind when patients bring up memes while discussing their concerns. “It’s our job to educate them, and we do that,” he says. But he thinks people should remain discerning in the medical content they consume online and follow up any self-diagnosis with a trip to the doctor.
Over the last few years, Jordan Duncan, a chiropractor who treats musculoskeletal pain conditions, has seen his fair share of patients recalling memes in the exam room. Without fail, these meme-educated patients describe their injuries using outdated or inaccurate chiropractic terms, like “threw my back out” or “slipped disc.” “As a [community], we’re trying to get away from using words like ‘slipped disc,’ ‘ruptured disc,’ ‘threw my back out,’” he says. “Some in the medical profession still use [them], but I think on the internet or in memes, that would be more likely where they would probably see that stuff.”
Like Harland, Duncan urges patients to seek out professional advice rather than self-diagnose, citing the low likelihood of a layperson properly identifying and treating their own back injuries. While patients might accurately assume they have a disc issue (it’s a common problem), discs don’t slip or rupture. Duncan fears a self-diagnosing patient might become scared and refuse to move, when physical therapy could effectively relieve their pain.
As with other forms of highly shareable online content, it can be difficult to trace the origins of medical memes. That makes it increasingly likely that a meme about a disease symptom or medication side effect wasn’t created or vetted by a medical professional, or even fact-checked in any way. Unlike resources like WebMD, the Mayo Clinic and other online symptom trackers, few memes have ties to the medical community. Because the format is designed to be consumed in a few seconds, memes flatten out nuanced medical experiences. Furthermore, memes also pop up in social media feeds, independent of context and expert-backed information. While they may reach a wide-ranging and diverse audience, they can’t immediately be taken as authoritative.
Although patients recognize the unreliability of health information found on social media, the number of internet users who seek medical counsel on these platforms is growing, in large part due to solidarity and online community support. Also, for patients who’ve seen one doctor after another, only to feel ignored or misunderstood, turning to memes can be an act of resistance to the medical establishment. In a context where medical misinformation abounds, some who self-diagnose by meme say it feels liberating to obtain a label for, and a way to explain, previously unnamed symptoms and struggles.
Elena (who withheld her last name) went down an autism-meme rabbit hole last year. She had long suspected she was neurodivergent, not least because two of her siblings have ADHD. A meme about masking, a tactic used by those on the autism spectrum to mimic neurotypical behaviors like eye contact, made Elena feel like she’d landed on the right diagnosis. The 32-year-old disclosed her hunch to a friend with autism and joined a number of online support groups where users regularly post memes. “It’s given me a nice explanation for why I’m so weird,” Elena says.
Elena hasn’t sought out a formal diagnosis. She believes that because she’s so effective at masking, a doctor might not take her concerns seriously. “That would be really invalidating,” she says, “to have someone else who hasn’t been on the inside of my brain tell me, ‘You can’t be [autistic] because you don’t act this certain way.’” Memes, coupled with insight from members of Elena’s Facebook support groups, have affirmed that everything she’s experienced — sensory overload, offhand remarks perceived as rude, masking — points to autism, and that’s enough for her.
Bridget, a 32-year-old who declined to share her last name, believes health-related memes can help normalize stigmatized experiences. The internet helped Bridget, who grew up “raised by hippies in the middle of nowhere,” understand that childhood experiences she found alienating were widespread. Over the course of a few years, Bridget aggregated relatable memes she found on Twitter, later realizing many of them had to do with ADHD. She didn’t mention her meme self-diagnosis to her psychiatrist, who diagnosed her the proper way last year, based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But she did bring up memes to her therapist, who was supportive of her self-diagnosis and the way it happened.
Memes provide access to medical information that allows patients to self-advocate in ways previous generations couldn’t, Bridget says. While she acknowledges that not all health advice circulating online is trustworthy, she believes gleaning insight from online culture can still aid in demystifying your health.
“Memes are like a Trojan horse of self-diagnosis, where you can be enjoying the humor and not have to take it so seriously and heavily,” Bridget says, “and that can make medical issues easier to deal with.”
Still, medical professionals would prefer patients seek their expertise, no matter how they feel about their DIY diagnoses. Will Peach, a fourth-year medical student in Bulgaria, believes disclosing a meme self-diagnosis can help make a visit more effective. Not only can doctors pinpoint exactly which signs or symptoms a patient believes they exhibit, they can also quell the patient’s fears and reach a conclusion more quickly.
“You showing your cards is making the system better,” Peach says. “Even if you do feel embarrassed, you’re doing everyone a favor by showing vulnerability or talking honestly. I think physicians have got to feel receptive to that.”