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  • Writer's pictureLouise G

b words and other stories | the problem with diagnoses.

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

One of the most common questions that clients ask me is, what is my diagnosis?

This is usually followed by what treatment should I get for my diagnosis?

My answer is always something like this:

A diagnosis is a label.

Your treatment should always be guided by your symptoms.

Identifying and exploring the symptoms getting in the way of you living your best life,

that is what is most important.

My response is never to disregard, shame, minimise, trivialise or belittle someone’s genuine interest or concern regarding their diagnosis and treatment. I know that receiving a diagnosis can be very important to some people. It can even bring relief. Sometimes it is necessary to get specific medication, services and funding involved. I understand that.

But, in the world of psychiatry, which is far from being an exact science, it is important to keep the big picture in mind. There are so many diagnoses that over-lap with symptoms and mental health professionals will always have differing opinions, and frequently disagree on what diagnosis someone may have.

And honestly, I actually don’t think a diagnosis really matters all that much.

In fact, I think it can be harmful and sadly (self) stigmatising sometimes.

Some of the problems that I have observed over time with clients who have received a diagnosis include:

1. People starting to identify as their diagnosis.

2. People starting to self-stigmatise and feel hopeless because of their diagnosis.

3. People engaging in sabotaging behaviours or living out their diagnosis unintentionally.

4. People becoming obsessed with their diagnosis.

5. People using their diagnosis as an excuse, to avoid, or to externalise blame.

6. People getting confused by their diagnosis and then attracting multiple diagnoses.

7. People becoming fixated on needing a specific treatment for their specific diagnosis.

8. People not seeing themselves as unique or an individual.

9. People medicalising their treatment and recovery.

10. People not focusing on their recovery.

11. People seeking out second, third, fourth opinions.

12. People experiencing loss because of their diagnosis – time, money, relationships, work.

Let me give you a scenario and give you my take on things so that a different perspective can be considered when it comes to mental illness diagnoses.

If you have sought out help because you are experiencing mental health difficulties, chances are it is because you have one or a cluster of symptoms that are problematic for you. For whatever reason, your symptoms are getting in the way of you living your best life. It’s impacting your overall health, functioning, relationships. You rightfully want to understand what is going on and what you can do about it.

So you go to see a mental health specialist who has the skills and authority to formally diagnose mental illnesses. The mental health specialist says, it is my clinical opinion, that you have 'this' diagnosis. It’s highly likely too, that she won’t adequately explain to you what this means, how she came to this conclusion, what your prognosis and recovery might look like, and differential diagnoses that could be considered.

So you go home, you undertake a mammoth Google-marathon, talk to your loved ones, and now all you can think about is a bunch of examples from movies, tv shows, social and mainstream media, that terribly portray people with the diagnosis that you’ve been handed. Now you wonder what your future looks like. But the thing is, you’re not doomed.

You’re just terrified because the diagnosis you’ve been given, like every other mental illness diagnosis, comes with a lot of stereotypes and stigma, and making sense of what to do next, and navigating 'the system', is overwhelming.

So this is where I often say, you can’t see the forest for the trees! The minute details that are wrapped up in a diagnosis are getting in the way of the big picture. This is particularly important to remember when there are symptoms impacting both the BODY and BRAIN.

What if we re-framed it? What if instead we focused on:

What are YOUR specific symptoms?

Which symptoms are impacting YOU the most?

How are they affecting YOU?

Which symptoms are not really impacting YOU, or may even perhaps have some benefits?

Let’s explore this more, prioritise YOUR difficulties.

Let’s make your treatment unique to YOU.

Doesn’t that make more sense? It's not a mistake that I put the word YOU in capital letters.

No two people in this big wide world, who have the exact same diagnosis, will experience their illness exactly the same. Shouldn't the approach to their experience and treatment be the same?

So just to recap:

There is NO shame with seeking and receiving a diagnosis.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to get an understanding of what is going on for you.

A diagnosis can absolutely help point you in the right direction.

BUT – proceed with some caution. There are no exact tests for mental illness.

Psychiatry is quite a qualitative, subjective science. It is not always 100% accurate.

YOUR lived experience, YOUR account of YOUR symptoms and difficulties, that is what matters most.

And, if you have received a diagnosis, remember that you are so much more than a label that came out of a big, heavy, dusty book!

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