What’s in a label?

Labelling of people appears to have become an everyday thing, be it about personality, sexuality, appearance, health, every aspect of our lives. This post is about labelling (or diagnosing) in relation to mental health difficulties.

Someone who has been to the GP about mental health difficulties may relate to being labelled (or diagnosed) with ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’. Other people, who have been assessed by a psychiatrist, may have been diagnosed with other conditions, such as schizophrenia, anorexia, emotionally unstable personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, panic disorder, bi-polar, or something totally different.

Diagnosing someone with a particular issue is a process that the medical model uses to work out what someone needs and what to do next, and it’s a term used to describe a collection of struggles someone has. There is certainly a time and a place for a diagnosis and a treatment plan, but it can also feel dehumanising, or like a judgement. Unlike a physical health problem, a mental health diagnosis is ‘very best guess’ based on observation and discussion and a grouping together and interpreting a collection of difficulties that someone has; there is no definitive test to diagnose which particular condition someone has, as there are for many physical issues.

When someone is given a diagnosis (or more), it can bring out a whole host of different feelings. All of which, whatever someone feels, is ok and valid, and it’s possible to feel many conflicting things too. It feels important to acknowledge these.

~Validation
~Invalidation
~Relief
~Acceptance
~Shame
~Panic
~Anger
~Anxiety
~Pride
~Isolation
~Sadness
~Loss
~Understanding
~Hope
~Purpose
~Contentment
~Happiness
~Guilt
~Confusion

And so many other things. As you can see, or may have experienced yourself, having a diagnosis can feel positive for some people, negative for others and a mix for other people. It can be a helpful thing, it can bring relief to understand what is going on, it can feel validating to know that someone ‘gets’ what’s going on for you, or create hope because now you know what’s wrong, you have a better idea of how to move forwards. Equally, it can feel panic inducing as to what happens next or now, or frustrating if you disagree, or shameful to be diagnosed with a particular illness, or an illness at all, or confusing as it what it means. And , it could lead to a feeling of not belonging or needing to belong. In addition to those, it could also feel something else, and/or a mix of several things.

Having been given a label or diagnosis, someone will likely need time to process this. That may involve a period of reflection of how things have been in the past and/or how this has happened, a searching for meaning or belonging or understanding, a considering of what they means and/or what to do now, a reassessing of life as it is now and/or the people in it, a contemplation of the impacts of this diagnosis, a connection with any of those wide variety of feelings. It’s important that someone takes the time to do that because any kind of diagnosis is not an easy one to process, however someone feels about it.

What can sometimes happen with a label or diagnosis, is that the struggles someone has can get lost within a diagnosis, with the diagnosis being seen first, before anything else (both by the person themselves and also other people). It can be internalised as an identity, or other people can use it as an identity. Someone can become ‘a PD’ or feel ‘I’m schizophrenic’ or ‘I’m anorexic’ (rather than ‘I’m a person with X’). The human being can get overlooked, and someone’s identity can change.

People often come to see me and have a diagnosis, and it’s important to share that, however, for me as a therapist, I want to see and connect with you, the person. The diagnosis comes second. I want to hear from you, what your struggles are, how you function, what life is like, what you want to change, how you feel, and so very much more. I want to get to know you.

If you’re reading this as someone who does have a diagnosis, I’m hopeful that you already know what I’m about to say, but just in case you need to hear it today…

You are far more than your diagnosis; you are a human being. And, as a human being, you’re full of potential. Keep going.