On Getting a Mental Health Diagnosis

In this day and age, the language of mental illness has become mainstream. “I’m not sad, I’m depressed.” “I’m not worried, I’m anxious.” With more and more people being diagnosed and speaking up about their struggles, the stigma of mental illness has been reduced.

Getting a formal diagnosis for a mental health issue can be tricky. In Winnipeg, a General Practitioner/ AKA family doctor may give a formal diagnosis. A psychologist or psychiatrist may also give one. A counsellor who is not a psychologist cannot give a formal diagnosis. However, there are pros and cons to getting a formal mental health diagnosis.

Here are some times when a formal mental health diagnosis may be helpful:

When needing to access specific resources

Some resources, programs or services are only available to individuals who have a formal mental health diagnosis. If the resources seems valuable then obtaining a diagnosis might be worthwhile.

When determining an effective treatment plan

A formal diagnosis can help to clarify what kind of treatment plan would be most effective for the symptoms you are experiencing. Having a formal diagnosis may reduce conflicting advice from those involved in your treatment. This may include medication or other types of therapy, or, most likely, both.

To provide meaning/ A sense of relief

If you are unsure what your symptoms mean and what is going on for you, having a diagnosis can provide a sense of relief that you are not “just crazy” but that there is a name for what you are experiencing. Naming things can be powerful and give you a sense of control.

The times at which a formal mental health diagnosis might not be helpful:

When it is not accurate

A thorough assessment is needed to determine the origins of the symptoms being presented to a health care professional, by an individual. For example, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression but the professional assessing you fails to ask about any significant events that occurred at the onset of the symptoms, they may mis-diagnose you with depression, when what you are actually experiencing is normal grief. (See Depression Vs Grief – When You’re Down and A Good Time to Panic).

For children, there are further complications when adults are not forthcoming, or are unaware of all the issues and circumstances affecting the child.  If these circumstances are not recognized or addressed, a child may be given an incorrect diagnosis and potentially even medication that is not actually addressing the underlying problem. (See Are the Kids Okay? – Children & Mental Health).

Diagnosis’ are based on the symptoms reported by an individual, and sometimes by additional information given by others who have observed the individual in other settings. When these symptoms are linked to a particular event or circumstance, diagnosis may not be helpful in describing an individuals’ mental health as it is the event or circumstances are what actually need to be addressed.

All mental illnesses are impacted by circumstances. An individual with schizophrenia, will do better with a supportive and calm environment than a chaotic one. While one can be depressed with no obvious life stressors, having life stressors can impact depression, or any other mental illness that is already there. It can be tricky to sort these contributing factors out and determine what course of action will be most effective.

When it ceases to be accurate

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Within mental health systems, many see mental illness as something that, like any illness, one can recover from. There is also a lot of discussion about the concept of mental illnesses being on a spectrum which varies throughout ones’ lifetime. Each of us have moments, days, weeks, or, sometimes months in our lives where we exhibit symptoms consistent with specific mental illnesses, in response to a variety of factors including life situation, physical health, maturity, etc. Obtaining a diagnosis at that time, would not likely be helpful in the long term as diagnosis tend to stay with people, or, at least, with their medical files. I have yet to see a file containing a doctor’s note that an individual has “recovered” from whatever diagnosis they were given in the past. Sometimes  diagnosis’ disappear over time, when a newer assessment reveals different symptoms which are not consistent with previous diagnosis, but not always. If no new assessment has been done, a diagnosis may remain in a file for a long time even when it is no longer relevant and may affect the type of care or treatment given in the future. (See Mental Illness – A Relationship Story and Mental Illness & Diagnosis – Saving Normal). It is important to update all of your health care supports about changes in your mental health status to ensure that your records are accurate.

NOTE: Having a historical mental health diagnosis in your medical file, even if it does not fit your current situation, may help guide health care professionals with current issues. For example, a physician may avoid prescribing medication which might exasperate symptoms previously experienced, or be pro-active in providing suggestions or resources to help manage situations that have caused mental health distress in the past.

When stigma accompanies your diagnosis

Stigma surrounding mental health is not extinct, even within the medical system. A medical professional might overlook the impact of an individuals’ situation and attribute it, unfairly, to the clients own diagnosis. This might mean that the wrong resources, or none at all, are provided in a time of need. A diagnosis is not an assessment of who you are. It is a description of the symptoms you are experiencing. Some diagnosis have more stigma attached than others, for example, personality disorders (narcissistic, borderline, dependent, etc.) these diagnosis are not always given in a forthcoming way, due to this stigma. If you think the symptoms related to these disorders fit you, and you are struggling with them, bring it up with your health care provider. It’s possible that they believe that you do have these symptoms and haven’t wanted to name it. When you bring it up, it shows your health care provider that you have insight into your own situation and may open the door  to resources that are better fitted to your symptoms.

Note: Personality disorders are not treated with medication, but with various types of therapy. Other disorders may exist alongside personality disorder and may be treated separately. (See Men & Trauma- Anger, Anxiety, Addiction & Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – The New Hysteria).

Addiction is considered a mental health disorder but has all kinds of shame and stigma attached to it. It is easier to find out what types of supports and resources available to you if you are honest and forthcoming with your mental health professional about the types of substances you use, how much your are using them, how often you are using them and your hopes for your future relationship with these substances. (See Addiction, Your Best Frenemy?)

As you can see, there are many reasons to obtaining, or not obtain a formal diagnosis for your mental health symptoms.

If you have a diagnosis that you feel does not reflect your own experience, consider getting a second opinion and/or having a discussion with your health care provider about your experience and about your understanding of the diagnosis in order clarify.

If your health care provider has suggested that you might have a particular mental illness but not given you a formal diagnosis, consider how accurate this feels to you and whether you need a formal one to access particular programs or therapies. If it feels accurate there are many resources can can be helpful whether you have a formal diagnosis or not:

Here are a few free resources which do not require a diagnosis for access:

  • For anxiety or depressive symptoms, check out:
  • For anxiety, check out the video series: Noise in Your Head.
  • Also check out Anxiety Disorders of Manitoba website at www.adam.mb.ca for online resources and free support groups.
  • For depression, check out Mood Disorders of Manitoba at http://www.mooddisordersmanitoba.ca.
  • For help with addictions contact AFM at https://afm.mb.ca.
  • For emotional regulation difficulties (sometimes connected to personality disorders and/ or trauma background) check out these articles on Dialectical Behavioural Therapy: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/dbt-dialectical-behavior-therapy/Also check out this video on the 5 aspects of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJzvQYswABQ.
  • Counselling is always considered helpful when suffering from mental health issues and no formal diagnosis is required to access most counseling. Sometimes just sharing your symptoms with a counselor will be more beneficial in helping to direct the therapeutic process than listing potential or formal diagnosis. Therapy does not treat a diagnosis, it treats symptoms.


For more reading on this topic, check out Mental Health & Medication.

And Why go to counseling?

4 thoughts on “On Getting a Mental Health Diagnosis

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