The Pros and Cons of “Diagnosis”

In the business of psychology, you can’t escape diagnosis.  “Giving” a person a diagnosis is required to make a claim for health insurance payment.  It is a must for conducting scientific research focused on learning more about people with common traits and determining what techniques and interventions are most likely to be helpful and successful.  It also plays a significant role in how doctors determine what medications, if needed, might be helpful.  However, I routinely caution people to only lean on labels like this for what they can do for you and to not get bogged down by the notion that something is wrong with them.

Often getting a label like a mental health diagnosis can cause harm.  They can be taken to imply that the person with the label is “broken” or defective in some way.  It is my experience that if we just “focus on the negative,” on all the problems that a person struggles with, we promote the idea that they (or we) are a victim, are powerless to change, and are doomed to a life of misery.  It’s when we take the time to step back and recognize that every trait we (and I mean every one of us) have can be either a strength or a weakness, that we can find power in being the person that we uniquely are.  I hope to come back to this to explain my thoughts further but for the moment, to give a concrete example, consider that people who are very structured and organized can also have a hard time letting go of that way of thinking and allow themselves to think creatively and “outside of the box.”  So, that one trait can be both a strength or a weakness, depending on the task at hand.

What can labels do for you?  They can provide access to supports like accommodations in school or to special programs conducted by professionals who have worked successfully with others who have been down a similar path to yours.  They can provide a loose framework of understanding about issues that other people might have in common with you and this can help you learn about positive solutions/approaches that might work for you too.  And, finally, they can suggest to doctors what medications, if necessary, might be helpful to give you or your child what I like to call “the space they need.”  Medications can lessen the intensity of a person’s struggles and allow them to work on developing the skills they need to harness their emotions and channel it into more positive directions.

Once you have tapped into the benefits of the label that you or a loved one may have been given, I encourage you to set it down in your mind and not focus too much on it. Instead, take that better understanding that you have and use it to grow and to improve the coping skills and strategies that work best for you.  At the same time, look for opportunities in your life where the traits that are unique to you can shine and help you to do great things.  Celebrate your strengths and learn to find peace with your challenges…your “growth edges” where you are still learning and changing.  We ALL have parts of ourselves that we are polishing and tinkering with to try to make our lives a little easier.  It’s the part of my life that I try to look at with acceptance, “I’m doing the best that I can,” while at the same time, I will continue to learn so that I can do things a little bit better the next time.  Sometimes this positive outlook is out of my reach for a while, but, just like with everything else, I really am doing the best that I can.