Labels are important in our society. Some labels are literal; you will buy a jar of pickles because it is labeled, “Pickles,” or you will buy a specific laundry detergent because it is labeled to your specificities. But when do labels become negative? When can they backfire? Some labels are not literal, or may not be black and white, and the labels I want to specifically focus on are those in the mental health world.
As a psychotherapist I personally hate the idea of diagnosing someone. In my opinion it is one of the most frustrating parts of this job. I will do it as much as I ethically have to, but I have learned when and where to draw the line. A diagnosis in the mental health world can be a positive thing but it can also be a negative thing to focus on, mainly because the focus should not be placed on the label, however, the focus should be placed on the individuals themselves.
An example of a diagnosis backfiring relates to someone I counseled professionally years ago when I first began practicing. A young client asked, “Kelly, what is my diagnosis?”, to which I responded with the diagnosis which was chosen due to certain characteristics and symptoms that this person struggled with. As weeks passed this client began to label herself as, “I’m so-and-so and I have [insert diagnosis]” and would therefore use it as a reason for any struggles in her life. Now, it may not sound to bad in writing, but this person took about 10 steps back in treatment. Instead of focusing on how to help her condition and how to reach her goals, she just accepted that she could never reach her goals because she had this label. She let it define her and let it consume her. It taught me an important lesson on what these labels can really do to an individual, especially when someone is already struggling with their own confidence and self-esteem. Why add more possible negativity to that?
Our society focuses so much on being judged and what others think of us, that we should be preventing individuals from stamping their diagnosis on their foreheads. Since learning that lesson I now give a disclaimer whenever someone asks what they have been diagnosed with, and I focus on the individual more so than the label:
“I will tell you what your diagnosis is, but please remember that this is not a label that defines you. You are not so-and-so that has depression, rather, you are so-and-so that is struggling with depression but is getting stronger with each passing day. This does have to be a permanent diagnosis, and I ask that you don’t focus on the label itself, but rather the meaning behind it and why we focus on it so much.”
With all of this being said I also want to focus on the good that can come from letting someone know what their diagnosis is, which is that it gives us the platform to educate our clients and the society as a whole. We can assume what a diagnosis means when we say it, but do you know all of the characteristics of it? Do you know if it may need long term or short term treatment? Is it something that may need medication or holistic treatment, or both? Can you overcome the symptoms quickly or will it take time and practice? What triggers them? How do you cope with all of this? These questions can be discussed while talking about a diagnosis, and a fantastic piece of the puzzle is that a strong treatment plan can then be implemented.
Sometimes it is good to know exactly what is wrong and what you are struggling with, but you want to make sure that you use the information to your advantage rather than your disadvantage. Some may be black and white, such as going to the doctor to get an x-ray to see if your arm is broken or not, and how to treat that diagnosis. In the mental health world there can be a lot of gray area surrounding your diagnosis and treatment, and it is important to be educated and not specifically focus on the label itself, but to focus on why you do not want it to be a label in the first place.