Are Labels Helpful?
Are Labels Helpful?
Dear Tacit,

Should I get a mental health diagnosis to start my counselling journey?

Signed: Are Labels Helpful?

Dear Are Labels Helpful,

What a thought-provoking question!  I will preface my response by first saying that this is my opinion only.  Many therapists will likely agree with me, but there may be some who do not. And that’s okay!

No two mental health situations are exactly alike.  Each person’s journey is unique.  The how’s and the why’s of the development of a mental health issue are never the same.   The distinctive impact that the mental health issue has on a person’s life will be a very individualized experience, even if the mental health problem might be considered similar to what others also live with.

The treatment approaches that will help each person cope effectively with their mental health challenges are also very individualized.  They depend on the specific personality, strengths and support network that are also involved in that person’s life  The need for and the type of medication will be different between people.  And the therapeutic strategies and tools that will be an effective remedy to a mental health challenge have to be equally very personalized.  What works for one person may not always work for another!

Basically, what I am saying is that a cookie cutter approach to dealing with mental health issues will not work.  So why do we try to label people within a cookie cutter explanation of whatever they might be experiencing?  With so many changing variables in every person’s situation, one might wonder if it is even possible to truly diagnose a person with much accuracy.  Mental health issues are complex and complicated.  In many cases, the symptoms of one issue can overlap and run into another, making it something else altogether.  And sometimes, the warning signs that seem to indicate a mental health issue are actually the result of other life imbalances or problems, and not the stand-alone problem that it seems.

When we google what we are experiencing, we are often looking for a simple checklist of symptoms to help us determine what condition we may be dealing with.  We want to better understand what is happening because this can help us feel safer and more in control.  Knowledge can give us hope that there are answers for what might help. And it can often make us feel less alone in our struggle.  Just knowing that others have experienced something similar (and have been able to overcome) can take away some of the stigma of feeling as though we are broken or damaged.

It is also important to recognize that in our society, one’s ability to access the resources and support that can increase resiliency and the ability to function successfully while coping with a mental health issue often depends upon having an official diagnosis.  Funding and access to programs designed to treat certain mental health issues will often only be granted if the appropriate label has first been stamped on a file.

But a diagnosis can also limit our ability to manage our mental health issues effectively.  Sometimes, a diagnosis creates complacency.  We might begin to believe that we are defined by the label we have been given and this can negatively change our perspective about who we are.  We may expect less from ourselves, as a result. We may get too comfortable living in the parameters outlined by the diagnosis, and believe we are incapable of more.

Sometimes, we begin to believe a diagnosis means there is no point in trying for more in life, and we become less willing to take risks and stretch into our potential.  We might get apprehensive that our mental health issues are worsening anytime our symptoms get triggered (even when our symptoms might be an ordinary result, or healthy and expected outcome, of a situation).  We may experience a loss of control or a disconnect in the trust we have with ourselves, believing that the mental health issue is in charge of our life, more than it really is (or needs to be).

Each person who is dealing with a mental health issue will have to decide for themselves if it would be helpful or hindering to seek out a proper diagnosis (google will NOT be enough). A true assessment of a person’s mental health needs cannot be completed in 3 sessions or in a 15-minute conversation with a family doctor.  Checklists that ask for a yes/no description of symptoms are not going to give an accurate picture of a person’s needs.

The dynamic that is involved in figuring out the depth of a person’s mental health situation involves an understanding of a person’s “norm” (often both past and present).  Determining what complicated factors also might be contributing to the mental health symptoms being experienced is crucial.  Sometimes, treating the underlying factors will alleviate the mental health symptoms completely.  And sometimes, treating JUST the symptoms might serve to worsen/enhance the root mental health issue.

Pursuing a thorough diagnosis is neither good nor bad, as long as you don’t stop at the label.  Find the support that will help you manage the challenges successfully.  Because that is always possible!  No person should feel they are being defined by ANY mental health label.

Take care!

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