Is the diagnosis of mental illness really helpful?


During my training to be a therapist I started to question whether the diagnosis of mental illness is helpful. I have mixed feeling around this so I thought I would put some of my thoughts into a blog.

I frequently find that people who have been given such a diagnosis are actually having perfectly natural reactions to events that have occurred at some point in their lives. Diagnosis can open up access to help and services, yet at the same time it can lead to people being over diagnosed, heavily medicated, stigmatised and feeling as if there is something wrong with them.

Psychological diagnosis’ are usually made from a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM  appears to have been thrown together with very little scientific research.  Despite it being in its fifth edition there still remains a lot of controversy around it. See the article on Psychology Todays website for more information on this by clicking here

When someone tells me that they suffer with a psychological illness, such as anxiety or depression, this does not give me a lot of information. According the the DMS depression could include sleeping too much or not sleeping enough, talking & moving slowly or talking & moving quickly. These things are polar opposites to each other, yet according the the DSM it is all part of the same condition. So when someone says to me that they are depressed, or suffering with some other diagnosis, what I am really interested in knowing is what depression means to that individual, how they experience it and what happened or is happening in their life to cause them to feel this way.

I believe that the vast majority of mental health diagnosis are a natural human reaction to unpleasant events in a person's past or present. Rather than thinking of someone as being depressed I tend to think of them as someone who is hurting because of things that happened to them.

Yet I would be loath to totally get rid of mental health diagnosis’. For some people it can feel a relief to be given a name for what they are experiencing, it allows them to make more sense of it, as well as enabling them to get the support that they need. So although I do not like to medicalise a persons suffering, to some extent it can be helpful. Yet with diagnosis also comes the danger of a person building their identity around a label, when in fact it is only a small part of who they are. As a counsellor my interest is working with the whole of a person and not just a medicalised label.

So is the diagnosis of mental health really helpful? I do not feel that I can give a firm answer to this question. For some people it will be, for others it won't, or a person might find getting a diagnosis has some benefits as well as drawbacks.