- Kanya Navanathan
Faking Illnesses Online: What You Need to Know
I preface this article by saying I have ADHD. This means that my experiences with both of these online communities comes from a place of understanding all sides. I mention this because I do not want to create the idea that I am a neurotypical infringing upon mental health spaces, taking the work of disabled creators, and using their words to construct a palatable idea of what these communities looks like to neurotypical people. I simply want people to understand a phenomenon that has tracked in popularity over the course of the pandemic from a more objective standpoint.
The internet has been one of the most hostile places for mentally disabled people for a very long time. People who were open about their struggles online had this used against them in bullying campaigns. Over time, awareness and outreach helped creators make names for themselves despite their disability. People were able to make lives destigmatizing mental illness and creating content about mental health. This content really resonated with the general public, especially among young people. It opened people’s eyes to the ableism that exists all around the world. Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability. Like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than,’ and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities. (Access Living).
The pandemic exacerbated the need for mental health awareness. More and more people were struggling with their health under the isolation of lockdown. People were shut out of their communities in person, and needed others to confide in. Now people were using dark humour to cope with their very real struggle. People raised awareness for causes and created fundraisers and organizations that provided relief for people struggling with mental health issues. This openness to how people were really feeling gave others the chance to learn more about mental illness. It also gave people the opportunity to exploit this new found need for mental health content online.
This has created the false idea that mental health is a trend online that can get people clout. This encouragement of all mental health content by the algorithm leads to people faking illnesses online. Although romanticizing mental illness online is nothing new, actively faking mental disorders and illnesses exploded in popularity during the pandemic. There are different types of people who fake illnesses, known as ‘fakers.’ The root cause of this phenomenon is complicated, but dissecting the types of fakers is a good start.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a mental health condition. People with DID have two or more separate identities.
These personalities control their behavior at different times.
Each identity has its own personal history, traits, likes and dislikes.
DID can lead to gaps in memory and hallucinations (believing something is real when it isn’t).
DID is very rare. The disorder affects between 0.01 and 1% of the population. It can occur at any age.
Women are more likely than men to have DID (Cleveland Clinic).
This disorder stems from repeated childhood trauma, and usually gets diagnosed later in life due to a wide variety of factors.
However, the #DID tag on Tiktok has exploded in popularity after Anthony Padilla’s video on DID aired on Youtube in March of 2020. This video encouraged systems (a term meaning people who live with DID) to share their experiences and talk about life with alters (a separate identity that is a part of the system). People explained how life with this disorder affected them in negative ways, and how they learned to cope and survive with medical help. This awareness helped systems find support and created understanding of their life with an audience who wouldn’t have been aware of the disorder otherwise.
However, some people saw the attention these systems were receiving and decided to fake systems for attention. These fake systems would often use DID as an excuse to say or do awful things and blame it on an evil alter. They would spread misinformation on the disorder by saying it stems from other sources that are non-traumatic, a theory with no research or merit behind it. They also romanticized and fetishized their alters. Some even going as far as using little alters (alters that around the age of a child or simply have the appearance and attitude of one) to say and do sexual things. For example, it is a trend to force alters to front on camera and have them switch using ‘positive triggers’ (A trigger that has no negative connotations attached to an alter). However, even positively triggering alerts can be exhausting for a system and should not be done in most circumstances. This trend makes the disorder seem fun and easy to control, even though switching between alters is always painful due to the dissociation involved between switches. All of these things aid only in stigmatizing the already deeply misunderstood disorder.
Tourette syndrome (TS) is a neurological disorder characterized by sudden, repetitive, rapid, and unintentional movements or vocal sounds called tics. TS is one of a group of disorders of the developing nervous system called tic disorders. Tics come and go over time, varying in type, frequency, location, and severity. The first symptoms usually occur between the ages of 5 and 10 years, generally in the head and neck area and may progress to include muscles of the trunk and arms and legs. Motor tics generally occur before the development of vocal tics and simple tics often precede complex tics. Most people with TS experience their worst tic symptoms in their early teens, but tics typically lessen and become controlled by the late teens to early 20s. For some people, TS can be a chronic condition with symptoms that last into adulthood. There is no cure for TS, but treatments are available to help manage some symptoms. (NIH)
TS is a misunderstood and stigmatized disorder, especially in online circles. Many social media influencers like Sweet Anita and Jan Zimmerman have made content about their Tourettes that has garnered millions of views on YouTube. Despite both making content on various platforms for years now, they both experienced hate campaigns over their videos within the last year saying that they faked their tourettes. This sort of harassment stemmed from the uptick of TikTokers online who have made videos of themselves faking tics. They will often ‘perform’ tics for the camera, the movements clearly planned in advance in the mind and very conditional to the circumstances of the video. For example, a person online faked having tics to promote their business, creating pins and t-shirts with slogans like ‘Tic Princess,’ while being exposed by their family for lying about having TS online. In the same vein, people online were filming themsleves faking tic attacks, making the often painful and scary experience look cute. They will cutesify their tics by making them into small, controlled poses and movements to almost resemble dancing. This sort of negligence masquerading as awareness sends the wrong message about how to handle situations with TS. It teaches people that a lack of control over your body is desirable and fun, rather than understanding the true complexities behind the disorder.
Autism/ ADHD fakers:
Autism and ADHD are both neurological disorders, however their symptoms are very different and are separate diagnoses. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life. Some symptoms include: Having trouble understanding another person’s point of view or being unable to predict or understand other people’s actions, Failing to, or being slow to, respond to someone calling their name or to other verbal attempts to gain attention, Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversation, Often talking at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond, and Having facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said. (NIMH).
ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. It is usually first diagnosed in childhood and often lasts into adulthood. Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors (may act without thinking about what the result will be), or be overly active. Some of the symptoms include: daydreaming a lot, forgetting or losing things a lot, squirm or fidget, talk too much, make careless mistakes or take unnecessary risks, have a hard time resisting temptation, have trouble taking turns, and having difficulty getting along with others. (CDC).
The critical reception of the film ‘Music’ by Sia brought in a wave of #actuallyautistic creators into the spotlight. The movie created the idea that autistic people were people ‘incapable of change’ and were destined to be burdens onto others. Tons of backlash came out autistic people who fundamentally disagreed with this hateful idea. Autistic people began to dissect the mistakes made by the movie and the importance of autistic people being involved in their stories. People in the general public were made aware of the damaging stereotypes around Autistic people in all sorts of movies, and wanted to learn more. However, this led to a lot of misinformation being spread. Due to the difference in communication between Autistic and Allistic (People without Autism) people, they use social media differently as well. @fidgets.and.fries on Instagram has a wonderful post discussing said differences. The direct communication style of many autistic people can be seen differently by allistic people online. The one that applies here is how ‘signs you are autistic’ tiktoks are interpreted by both groups. An autistic viewer would see this a reaffirmation of information they already know, and most autistic tiktoks are made for autistic audiences. People often use stimming (Self stimulatory behaviour; a coping mechanism for an excess of sensory input). as a misnomer for dancing, when stimming is simply a way for people to regulate their bodies. However, allistic audiences see these tiktoks as diagnostic tools and consider themselves autistic by these metrics.
A similar case can be made for ADHD content. A lot of ADHD creators explain how their brain works. They describe how difficult it can be to live with the disorder, but also describe the interesting lives they lead. ‘The ADHD train’’ refers to the way ADHD brains work, and this content has an emphasis on the difficulties of concentrating at work, school, home etc.. The pandemic has exacerbated these difficulties with concentration, so people who don't normally have these struggles may notice ADHD symptoms which could be attributed to something else. Especially since ADHD symptoms are present during childhood, a lot of people who are experiencing difficulties with productivity in the pandemic may not have had those issues as a kid. The pervasive ‘ADHD = constant hyper personality’ is often used online as a joke or even as a persona for entertainment.
People may consider themselves disordered because the content is relatable, but the only way for Autism and ADHD creators to get popular online is by being relatable to everyone. This false correlation equals causation leads to people misunderstanding the nature of Autism and ADHD. It leads to ‘positive stereotypes:’ the idea that these disorders are blessings. The spectrum of symptoms that can affect Autism/ADHD people get Worst of all, it teaches people that relating to people with ADHD and Autism makes them disabled, rather than understanding that ADHD and Autistic people are relatable people too. Negative stereotypes around ADHD/Autism make it seem like they are simply disconnected from humanity. This inherent dehumanization of autistic/adhd people means that certain people may find it hard to empathize with them without feeling the urge to self-diagnose.
People fake and romanticize more than just the disorders mentioned here. However, I chose to highlight these three disorders due to the more recent nature of the exploitation and the backlash they received. It is also interesting to note that these mental disorders have physical symptoms that are visible to people. People against mental health acceptance argue that since mental illness doesn’t always manifest in visible symptoms, it simply doesn’t exist. It can be difficult for people to believe someone when they cannot see the [physical proof of illness. These disorders allow for a physical manifestation of the mental anguish these people struggle with.
These fakers have received vitriol online in various communities online. ‘Fake Disorder Cringe Compilation’ videos receive millions of views on YouTube. ‘r/FakeDisorderCringe’ on Reddit has nearly 200,000 people subscribed. These communities are dedicated to finding people who fake illnesses to expose their lies and stop the spread of misinformation. They often claim they want to educate people on the harsh realities of living with the mental illness and disorders people fake on there. Comments of these posts will often explain how these fakers are spreading misinformation and how these expressions of symptoms are not actual signifiers of having said illness/disorder. People with medical diagnoses share their experiences with the illnesses/disorders being faked, and how they are hurt by fakers. These subs have helped stop grifters from making money. People have admitted to and apologized for faking after seeing the backlash they faced.
This sounds good in theory, right? Working against misinformation is always beneficial. However, these communities also spread their own misinformation and medical ableism under the guise of ‘awareness.’ While someone faking an illness may say ‘ALL self diagnosis is valid,’ someone from these communities will uphold that ‘You MUST have a medical diagnosis before entering these spaces.’ The two extremes are ones held by people who do not or cannot interact with mental health communities in person. Most people in mental health communities in person understand the nuances and complexities behind medical diagnosis. There are far too many medical barriers. It could be medical bias on the basis of your race or sex. A lack of support from family. Fear of losing custody of your kids after diagnosis. Fear of being mistreated or even paid less at work. Getting a diagnosis for many can be impossible, but the support groups are more than willing to help regardless because they understand that. Hunter Freeman states that DID fakers “…Do it to stop feeling lonely” in his article on Medium. The people on these forums do much the same. They get to find a bad guy, make fun of them, lambast them, and move on. Righteous fury.
The reality of our world is lambasting fakers online does not aid the real issues disabled people face. It doesn’t actually stop fakers either, it only encourages unhealthy skepticism against actual disabled people. @acekace_ on Instagram made a reel stating ‘When you’re autisic but you’re pretty so people think you’re faking.” The reel was misinterpreted and posted on r/FakeDisorderCringe with the caption ‘ We 100% think you're fake just because you think you're pretty there's genuinely no other reason at all.’ The meaning behind the original reel was that people think Autism has a ‘look,’ and Allistic people don’t believe Autistic people’s experiences when they don’t have that look. The disinterpretation was that a faker wanted to brag about how pretty and quirky they were for being autistic. Systems with DID have had to quit social media due to the harassment they faced triggering dissociation episodes that are destroying their mental health. People with tics are bullied for faking TS even though tics can come from other sources, like anxiety or even FND. FND is a type of tic disorder that is often mistaken for TS, even by doctors. They are called fakers because they have the same tics as popular creators, even though tics are highly suggestible. (The Guardian).
Even in communities dedicated to mental health education and the stop against misinformation, they still hate disabled people. The mob mentality and the emphasis on negativity and gatekeeping does little to aid the people inside of the community. Faking illnesses online hurts disabled people by commodifying their struggles into something cute or fun. Yet the needless attacking and vitriol these communities harbor towards unconventional disabled people works to do the opposite of what their communities aim to do, help disabled people. Faking illnesses is an illness, known as Facetious Illness Disorder.
The worst part is, it’s other disabled people doing this. People with DID are the ones excessively fixating on fakers because to them, that faker is why no one respects DID identity. It’s much easier to focus on one bad person, than to analyze or question the ableist systems that contribute to the oppression of disabled people. Compassion for disabled people, and for people who fake illnesses is needed to help stop this. Outrage only encourages social media to popularize people faking illnesses online.
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