Written by therapist Ruth Nathaniel
If you clicked on this blog post, it’s likely that you may have recently been given a diagnosis and are curious or concerned about what it might mean for your mental health journey. Or maybe you’ve never received a diagnosis, but have heard your friends talk about theirs and wonder about its importance as you consider starting therapy.
Let me establish that no matter what led you here, I’m glad you’re diving into what can be a pretty sensitive subject for clients and therapists alike, and hope you will walk away with greater clarity about diagnoses and their role in the mental health field.
What is a Diagnosis
A diagnosis is the umbrella which specific behaviors, feelings, and symptoms sit under. Therapists use The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) to determine which diagnosis best describes your situation.
Due to the requirements of insurance companies, a diagnosis must be established after your first intake session. Yes really, that quickly! Many therapists consider it best practice to provide a conservative initial diagnosis (i.e. adjustment disorder) that may become further refined after you’ve worked together for several weeks and there is enough evidence to support a different diagnosis.
How It Helps
When you plan a drive there is point A (starting location) and point B (final destination). Think of your diagnosis as the starting location on a journey, and your therapeutic goal as the final destination. The diagnosis establishes your jumping off point, and highlights some of the variables that will need to be taken into account when plotting your path to the final destination. Furthermore, as you and your therapist determine what you’d like to address in therapy and how to get there, your diagnosis will provide guidance and clarity in shaping realistic goals.
Client Responses and Impact
Some people experience great relief when they finally learn their diagnosis. It can be overwhelming for clients to navigate the features of their mental health without knowing what to call it. Diagnoses provide you with the language to accurately describe your mental health, and put words to your experience. It’s liberating!
Others may feel discomfort and anxiety around this knowledge. This too is normal. Mental health has been stigmatized for so long, that it’s hard to imagine any diagnosis being baggage-free. You may feel shame or fear, and wonder what implications this diagnosis may have in your life.
Here is the truth: Your diagnosis may have a minimal or significant impact on your life outside of therapy. It will certainly guide your progress and journey in therapy, and clearly highlight when you’re working on and achieving your goals. And much like medical diagnoses, it will also be a part of your story, even when you no longer meet the criteria for the diagnosis. For example, it may come up if your therapist’s notes are ever subpoenaed by court, or if the state you’re in requires mental health screening to legally purchase a firearm.
But overall, there are ways to help mitigate the stigma and stress associated with a diagnosis, so keep reading for some tips.
Sharing your Diagnosis
Some clients are satisfied knowing their diagnosis and keeping it between themselves and their therapist, while some clients prefer to share their diagnosis with others in their life.
If you want to share your diagnosis with others, talk about it with your therapist. Explore your motivations and desires to let people know about your mental health diagnosis. Establish exactly who you’d like to share it with (a spouse, parent, best friend, etc.). If it’s clear that transparency is best for you, please take the time to learn about your diagnosis (your therapist is the best resource!) and work out how you’d like to describe it to others.
Often, stigma and stereotypes go unchecked because people simply do not have the knowledge to hold nuanced space for mental health diagnoses and don’t know what to do with this new information. This can be incredibly disappointing, hurtful, and lonely for the person with the diagnosis.
One of the best ways to set yourself up for success when having these vulnerable conversations is to establish and share exactly how your person can show up and support you through your mental health journey. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking for an encouraging word when you’ve had a rough week, or letting them know when you’re practicing a particular skill and may be feeling more tender. You’re definitely worthy of such support!
At the end of the day, a diagnosis is just one way to help you and your therapist establish what you’re experiencing and how to address it to increase your quality of life. Keep the long game in mind as you hold space for your diagnosis, because it’s simply the launching point that will highlight your progress as you continue on this journey.
If this blog resonated with you and you want to address your mental health, or know things could be better, I’d love to support you. Give us a call about setting an appointment today!