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Slipshod Diagnoses and One Man’s Journey

One of the biggest problems facing the mental health system today is slipshod diagnoses — diagnoses made too quickly, without obtaining enough information, and checking for reasonable alternative diagnoses. Professionals sometimes complain that they are overworked and need to make a diagnosis quickly in order to be reimbursed for the interview. I say that’s rubbish and puts people’s lives in jeopardy, in pursuit of quick treatment, quick payment, and quickly moving onto the next patient.

Don’t get me wrong — most mental health professionals take their time, explore rule-out diagnoses, and always seek to ensure the person in front of them really fits the diagnostic picture for a given disorder. But as we reported today, bipolar disorder may be overdiagnosed in real life practice, where nearly half those initially diagnosed with bipolar disorder didn’t actually meet the criteria for that diagnosis.

Imagine any other scientific field where you can be wrong half the time and still be considered “scientific” in any sense of the world.

Via Philip over at Furious Seasons today, I learned of one college student’s mental health journey, published in the college newspaper as, To hell and back. While long, it’s an interesting story of a college student’s experience with various psychiatrists and grappling with mental health issues while in college. And it shows just how badly professionals can work to misdiagnose an individual, over and over again. (Keeping in mind, of course, that this is just one side of the story; the story the professionals mentioned in the article may tell of this person might paint a very different picture.)

Diagnosis is part art, part science. While there are structured clinical interviews that can take much of the “art” and guess-work out of diagnosis, such structured interviews are rarely used in everyday clinical practice because they take too much time (and one might argue, too much effort on both the clinician’s and patient’s parts). So most clinicians rely on their experience and training to diagnose. After seeing dozens or hundreds of people with depression, a professional can start to feel they can spot “depression” a mile away.

But an initial interview with a person who is seeking mental health services should take time and patience. In an outpatient setting, it is typically about 75 to 90 minutes in length, and this is on purpose. It is an information-gathering session and one that, if rushed, much can be lost in obtaining a balanced picture of the person’s life. By the end of that first session, most experienced clinicians have a pretty good sense of what might be going on with the client and can reliably formulate an initial diagnosis.

Sometimes, a professional will defer a diagnosis because the picture is still not clear. It may take another session or two before they feel like they have enough information to provide an accurate diagnostic label. Other professionals don’t care as much how reliable or accurate their diagnosis is, feeling either the actual diagnosis isn’t all that important (oblivious to how such labels will follow the person around for the rest of their lives on their medical charts), or that it’s “good enough” for the patient’s current complaints.

In hospital settings, such an interview can be rushed and completed in as little as 20 minutes. Professionals feel they can do an adequate job in such a short period of time, but likely fail miserably in their ability to produce reliable and accurate diagnoses for their patients.

Sadly, I don’t think that Thor Nystrom’s college story is all that unique. And his struggle to be accurately diagnosed shows a not uncommon failing within our hodge-podge mental health system. This struggle is typical when multiple professionals get involved in a single person’s life, all offering their own unique view of the patient’s issues. And all rarely agreeing on what the “real” diagnosis or problem is.

There’s no clear solution here, outside of mandating and instituting structured clinical interviews for all. But I doubt that will happen, even when research shows our current diagnostic procedures are failing miserably, because professionals (and insurers who pay for all of this) are invested in the current system.

No matter how broken it may be.

Slipshod Diagnoses and One Man’s Journey

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Slipshod Diagnoses and One Man’s Journey. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 6 May 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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