The Dangers of Diagnosis

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
February 1996; Reviewed: February 2004

One of the most controversial aspects of mental health treatment and care is the issue of diagnoses. Many professionals claim that such labels only add to the stigmatization of these illnesses, depersonalization of the individual who is suffering, and adherence to a medical theory of mental disorders which has been anything but proven. Others suggest that such labels are descriptive and helpful for professionals in using the same language to discuss clients. These professionals also point to the need for a stable, agreed-upon language for mental health, in order to reliably and accurately study human behavior and treatment.

There's truth to both positions, and so a careful balance must be struck between the two. Professionals and laypeople alike should be extremely careful in using these labels. I cringe when I hear some of my colleagues describe an individual as a "depressive" or "schizophrenic." These same doctors wouldn't dream of calling someone who suffers from cancer, "Oh, he's a cancerive," or similar strange transformation of a disorder name into a descriptive noun. Someone who has depression can suffer from having depression, but that does not make them "depressive." It may seem like a nitpick, but it's not. By using these terms in the wrong way, professionals seek to depersonalize the individual and distance themselves from both the patient and the illness they suffer.

Still, diagnoses are useful and needed. Science requires that researchers carefully define their terms before beginning their research, if such research is going to be useful and applicable to the general field as a whole. For all of its shortcomings (and they are many), the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) has managed to do this. In its latest incarnation as the DSM-IV, it relies on scientific evidence of the usefulness and reliability of diagnoses before they appear listed in it. It allows researchers and clinicians alike to be able to speak on similar terms when trying to find new cures and come to better understanding of these disorders.

In the same way, though, I sometimes see people throwing these terms around with a life of their own . . . And no more so than online. I don't see the usefulness of playing armchair therapist at home to people online looking for a label to help define themselves. I do see the usefulness of people looking for honest self-knowledge and a better understanding of the current problems they are experiencing. Again, there's a fine line that needs to be carefully drawn here. When in doubt, I would shy away from using a diagnostic label in most conversations, including those that occur in self-help support groups.

Reference
Grohol, J.M. (Feb 1996). Dangers of diagnoses. [Online].

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Jan 2007
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