Mental Health Labels

Beyond Black and White: Making Sense of Mental Health Labels

We've all been there in that intro psych class, flipping through the pages of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for the first time. It's a goldmine of information, but also a breeding ground for self-diagnosis and worried speculation. Professors often warn us about this initial phase, however, the feeling that every symptom listed somehow applies to you is very common. I remember falling victim to this myself, convinced I had a particular disorder after reading the criteria. 

Over time and with experience, I gained a clearer understanding of how symptoms manifest in various situations. I was also eventually able to articulate my discomfort with diagnosis and labelling. While initially it can be an interesting exercise when you are learning; labelling in mental health has a greater impact than just naming something. 

Labelling and diagnosis have also got a bad rep because of the way it has been used by the medical community and clients alike. 

The experience of diagnosing and receiving a diagnosis on issues concerning your mental health can be a complex one.  Responses can range from feeling relieved, scared, embarrassed, enraged, numb, and in denial. 

Why? Obviously because talking about mental health is not the norm. Mental health issues are not normalised like physical health issues and are still stigmatised. This stigma comes not only from the people around but also comes from within the person.

Some diagnoses come with prejudice and stereotypes.This stigma surrounding mental health is a significant hurdle. A lack of open conversation breeds a lack of empathy, leading to blame and shame rather than understanding. There is simply not enough space for people dealing with chronic or acute mental health crises, because of the judgements passed on the emotional experiences that might accompany a mental health crisis. This lack of space stems from the fear or judgement and discomfort that some feel around emotional experiences. People may feel weak for grieving, crazy for experiencing panic attacks, or broken for emotional outbursts. This cycle of stigma exacerbates the challenges individuals face.

Because mental health concerns often manifest through behaviours witnessed by the person experiencing them and their loved ones, symptoms can be mistaken for personality traits. You see a person as angry or emotionally unstable, rather than them experiencing a symptom of a condition. It becomes easy to conflate symptoms for who the person is.

These negative perceptions can be internalized, making it difficult to accept a diagnosis. Additionally, diagnoses can be misused as a crutch, an excuse to avoid accountability for actions. In some cases, frequent outbursts can lead to "apology fatigue" or even a subconscious threat response in the individual experiencing them.

While labelling helps categorise the symptoms someone is experiencing into a neat box and helps determine further course of treatment, there is concern that a lot of what they are experiencing might be attributed to their diagnosis and environment factors might be overlooked. For example, you might attribute a person’s anxiety to their generalised anxiety disorder and fail to explore if something is making them anxious currently. A person’s unstable mood might be attributed to a Bipolar experience and not some kind of change taking place in the environment. While there is an interaction between the environment and mental health, it might either aggravate or calm one down. Individuals might feel dismissed when their complaints are shrugged off and attributed to the disorder they are experiencing and this can sometimes feel dehumanising. 

Relief, however, can also come with diagnosis. There's a strange validation in finally having a name for what you're experiencing. "It's depression," you might say, a weight lifting off your shoulders. Suddenly, the sadness, the trauma, the tendencies – they all make sense. They have a label, and that label connects you to a community of others facing similar challenges. It whispers, "You're not alone. You're not ‘crazy’."

Remember, a label is meant to be a starting point, not an endpoint. It's there to help us understand, not dehumanize or belittle. Use the labels as pointers, but don't let them define you or those around you. There's a whole story waiting to be told beyond the diagnosis.

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Meet the Author

Zena Yarde


Zena's not one for idle chit-chat, often taking things a bit too seriously (is there even another way?). She's fully dedicated to her cats (or let's say she's a bit of a crazy cat lady), enjoys the simple things, family time, sunsets, the ocean, a good nap, observing plants and people (in the non-creepy way), and the occasional solitude.

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