Within the field of psychology, we are often tasked with – and sometimes required to – give patients a diagnosis in order to treat them. Some insurance companies and medical centers will not even allow for a treatment if you do not provide a specific mental health diagnosis to the patient.
Diagnostic levels have some advantages. They help guide treatment choices by the therapist, and they can make it possible for individuals to better understand their struggles. But diagnostic labels are not without their problems. As we learn more about identity, we also need to recognize that they can potentially be actively harmful.
The Problem with Diagnostic Labels
Some of the issues that relate to diagnostic labels are well documented, but many times they focus on stigma. For example, in the past, employers could find ways to receive information about mental health diagnoses, and use that to determine lateral mobility. Those days are changing, but the stigma against people with mental health issues still exists.
Similarly, labels can miss individuality. A person may or may not show a diagnosis of depression, for example, but there may still be evidence that they would benefit from a different form of treatment, or that their primary challenge isn’t necessarily depression related (for example, trauma). There are complexities there that are not always captured by a diagnostic label.
But what can be especially problematic is how a person sees themselves after they receive a diagnosis. What we find as psychologist is that some people where their diagnosis as a label, and *use* the label rather than try to address the mental health disorder. An example might be:
- Someone hears they have depression, and uses that as a reason to give up.
- Someone finds out they have anxiety, and avoids social gatherings as a result of that label.
- Someone learns they have addiction, and assumes that their behaviors are unavoidable.
There are some people that take on new, destructive habits because of the label. For example, a person that is labeled as having depression might read that some people with depression cut themselves, and try that same behavior only to blame it on their depression as though it were inevitable. Over the past 10 years, some people have also found embracing their mental health challenges and using them as part of their social media identity, rather than seeing it as a challenge to address.
Overall, while diagnostic labels have value, we as psychologists also have to be aware that people are more than their diagnosis, and it’s important to view them in a larger context – and also make sure that we are careful about diagnosing someone and aware of how that may change their future behaviors.