The Importance and Dangers of Labeling with Diagnosis

Obsessive compulsive disorder. Major depressive disorder. Post traumatic stress disorder. In the field of psychology and psychotherapy, diagnoses are one of the ways that we provide a service to many of our patients. Much like seeing a general doctor for an illness, it helps to have a specific diagnosis to know what’s going on and to guide future treatments and behaviors.

But diagnoses are a double edged sword. Although they have benefits to the patient, psychologist, and other parties involved, they also have drawbacks that make them both not ideal in all circumstances, and potentially problematic for some.

Benefits of a Diagnosis

Although problems do exist, here are some advantages of being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. These include:

  • Evidence Based Treatment – There are successful, evidence based treatments for different types of mental health problems. But knowing which treatment to use requires a diagnosis, as treatments can differ even between similar conditions (ie, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder).
  • Severity and Improvement – Diagnosis also gives both psychologists and patients a chance to measure the severity of the disorder and the improvement that a patient experiences with treatment. Treatment and money is not wasted on those that do not need it.
  • An Answer – Some patients struggle for a long time, not knowing if they have anything that can be treated. Diagnosis helps to answer the question of what has been affecting them, and can give hope that treatment will be successful.

Insurance companies also require a diagnosis to treat patients, because they want to make sure that money is not being spent on conditions that do not exist. So for those patients looking for reimbursement, a diagnosis helps.

Weaknesses of a Diagnosis

Despite these advantages, diagnoses also have weaknesses that make them problematic for many of those that struggle. For example, diagnosis comes with:

  • Labels – Putting a label on someone may help guide treatment, but it also gives them a label that sticks with them like an identity. Patients do not always benefit from feeling like they are boxed into a condition and feeling like that’s who they are.
  • Stigma – Similarly, those same diagnoses may carry stigma, both for yourself and for others. Some workplaces also do not allow people to have a mental health condition, such as police officers, causing challenges professionally.
  • Limitations – Mental health is not always as simple as a diagnosis. You may show signs of different troubles, not just one disorder, or have stress that is worth treating but doesn’t qualify for a diagnosis.

These are some examples of the dangers that diagnoses serve, and why it is not always ideal to say you have a specific disorder. Mental health is also treatable, but many people find that after they have been diagnosed, they feel that they are stuck with that label – they feel they will “always” be someone with the disorder, even though that is not true.

Diagnosis or No?

Most patients will still benefit from a diagnosis. But it’s always a good idea to talk to your psychologist, like Dr. Marc Shulman, if you feel that there is a reason to avoid a diagnosis or if you are concerned about what it will mean to be diagnosed. There are sometimes solutions that may help you overcome any issues you have, as well as help you work through any stresses that a diagnosis brings you.