Mental Illness Diagnostic Labels – The Good and the Bad

Words have the power to define what we see. With respect to mental illness diagnoses, this is no different.

There’s so much to be said about this topic, I’m elaborating a bit on here after one of my latest Instagram posts. (Keep in mind I am not a diagnostic professional, nor clinician, and my knowledge is based on research in addition to personal experience).

What I want to stress most is that everyone experiencing mental illness has a different experience, regardless of their diagnostic label.

I’m going to stick to three main points here.

1. Not everyone with the same diagnosis experiences their mental illness the same way.

By the nature of the diagnostic and statistical manual DSM (what most clinicians use to diagnose mental disorders) it’s categories are arbitrary and blend together.

In psychology, we know a lot less than we don’t know. We don’t even know what the underlying causes of the mental illnesses are that we have named. We just group things together based on the way they tend to present clinically and how they occasionally respond to treatment.

Frustrating right? Yep, definitely can be. Since mental health is so complex, many symptoms and even treatments overlap for what we define to be “distinct” disorders. Many people receive more than one diagnosis and others find themselves flip flopping in and out of different categories at different points of their life.

At the end of the day, the label itself isn’t the most important aspect. Your experience of your mental illness is. The labels themselves merely suggest to other professionals what kind of treatment MIGHT help their patients and what kind of symptoms are common. So these names help you get the help you need, but beyond that, they’re just names!

Sharing your experiences as best you can and being open and listening to others is not only good life advice but helps both your recovery and that of others.

2. They are just labels.

Easier to say than to accept. We know that words have the power to influence what we see and experience. With mental illness labels the effects are the same – we might be blocked from seeing anything that differs from the label. A type of confirmation bias – we see what we expect to see (in ourselves and others) and overlook that which isn’t consistent with our beliefs of what a certain illness looks like.

This is where there’s obviously room to improve. We need to expand our beliefs to remove prejudice and challenge the ideas we hold about mental illness. If we can understand that mental illness is different for everybody, and steer away from stereotypes, we can see people for the individuals they are.

To me, I have never really been uncomfortable with the diagnoses I have received (but I also hold several more “socially acceptable” labels if you want to call them that). Unfortunately, There is still incredible stigma surrounding many mental health diagnoses but they do not define us as people. (They are just names for typical patterns of behaviours that might follow certain treatment trends. Nothing more.)

“Some things are known, but more isn’t. Maybe this lack of true understanding is why there is still stigma about mental health. Where there is mystery, there will be fear.” – Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

Personally, I find comfort in my diagnoses because it helps me cling on to the fact that I’m “not crazy” and it in someway legitimizes my experiences and suffering. Knowing that what you’re feeling has been experienced to a certain extent by others before you removes some of the sense of isolation so commonly associated with many mental disorders. Indeed, knowing that there are potential treatments and others have survived is reassuring as well.

On the other hand, hearing of a certain label can bias us towards believing someone to behave a certain way and ignoring the diversity and idiosyncrasies of personal experiences.

In fact, labels CAN exacerbate symptoms. Allowing us to behave in a manner consistent to what we believe our label implies as well as alerting us to things we might have otherwise moved past. I know personally, I occasionally use my mental illness as an excuse. (I.e I don’t particularly want to socialize so I make an excuse not to go to a party). It takes a while of living with mental illness and a good degree of introspection to be able to reflect on these tendencies to learn to really LIVE with mental illness.

In contrast though, by recognizing our weaknesses that might come with a diagnosis we can find ways to work with our temperaments better.

3. Mental illnesses are not adjectives.

In today’s western society there is almost a push towards over-diagnoses and restricting the bounds of what is actually defined as “normal”. It’s hard to say whether there actually is higher incidence of mental illness nowadays or we’re just more tuned in to it…

Beyond a trend towards deeming smaller deviations from normality “pathological”, Using terms typically reserved for clinical cases really changes their meaning, in some ways invalidates what people suffer through, can perpetuate stereotypes and societal stigma, as well as being generally hurtful or offending.

I often joke that the world is becoming “overly politically correct” – that you can’t really make lighthearted jokes any more without offending people. To a certain extent I think this is true, but in many ways I disagree with the use of mental illness diagnostic labels specifically as adjectives.

Jokes often stem from stereotypes and perpetuate erroneous pre-existing beliefs, whether or not we know we have those beliefs or that what we say spreads them deeper. In psychology, there is a difference between explicit beliefs (those that we know we hold) and implicit beliefs (those that we might act upon and manifest without being conscious of them). Our implicit beliefs are not our fault, they’re formed as a result of the larger society we belong to and the way we experience our lives, but these implicit beliefs are very real and can have very real consequences.

FOR EXAMPLE: A study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that implicit attitudes of 40 primary care physicians lowered the likelihood of administering treatment to black patients versus white patients diagnosed with the same disease. Interestingly, these physicians showed no explicit attitudes consistent with this prejudice but the implications of their implicit attitudes can be seen in their differential responses.

So I’ve gotten pretty far off track here – the point I was trying to make was, that a large part of society (including ourselves potentially) maintain beliefs that can potentially result in discrimination or just a tendency to ignore individuality whether it’s with mental health or otherwise. The good news is that in being aware that we (or others) might act inconsistently to how we feel, we can reduce the negative effects.

That is to say, don’t go around accusing everyone of being “racist” or “homophobic” just because they didn’t hold a door open for a minority or because they made a stereotypical joke. The main way we recognize that our behaviour, conscious or otherwise, has important societal implications is to question where our actions come from and how they might affect others. Including what we say.

so diagnostic labels, the takeaway – yes labels contribute to stigma and are often misused day-to-day, but you don’t have to allow yourself to be defined by these titles, because in fact, they were designed to try and help. The important thing is to be open and keep an open mind to all the individual variation that exists wth experiences of mental health (as individual life experiences are subject so such variations as well). Many people have different experiences with diagnoses, what are yours?

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