I am yet to meet any one who has been diagnosed with some form of mental illness who doesn't have an opinion on the usefulness of diagnosis. Often, and rightly so, people who have been diagnosed with such a condition use the term 'label' instead of diagnosis.
This is where the problem begins. If you have a physical illness, rarely is this used to describe 'who you are'. People with mental illness however, are frequently described in terms of their diagnosis. And usually, for better or worse, you become stuck with this for life.
The labels we, and others, have for ourselves are often used, and form an important part of our self-identity as well as other's opinions of ourselves. I'm a greenie, husband, mother, lawyer, carpenter, car enthusiast, gardener, and so forth. Any labels however that can possibly be stigmatised are also usually attached to one's identity; mentally ill, homosexual, bisexual, criminal history. Not only does society attach these labels to us, but we frequently do too.
Is this a good thing or not?
There is a lot of information out there that says we should not define ourselves by our illness but rather 'I am a person and I have depression' instead of 'I am a depressive'. The distinction is subtle but it can have quite an effect on how we view ourselves.
Most people I have talked to hate labels. There are also a lot of mental health professionals who do not believe in diagnosis and think it is detrimental (such as the psychologist who taught my clinical psychology class).
Personally, I don't actually mind being given a label. When I was originally diagnosed with depression, the first thing my doctor said after suggesting that I was depressed was, 'but that is probably the last thing you want to hear.' In fact, it wasn't. As I suggested in yesterday's post, I like to know things. A diagnosis gives me something slightly tangible that I can work with to understand my life and my head. It allows me to research my disorder. It allows me to realise that there are enough people out there who act and feel in a similar way to myself for an official name to be given to it. This helps to validate how I feel and allows me to seek out similar people.
On the other hand, while there is a vast amount of information available about the various mental disorders, both we and mental health professionals need to remember to not get completely caught up in textbook definitions and worry about which symptoms we should or shouldn't have. While there are a collective group of symptoms that most people with a particular illness with display, every one is different. Unfortunately I think some health professionals forget this and stick to the treatment guidelines exactly as they are, and forget that they are merely only guidelines, and that adjustments need to be made to tailor treatment to meet an individuals specific needs.
Stigma and discrimination is a major issue associated with diagnosis and labels. I have been lucky so far in that I have not particularly had a problem with stigma. That being said, I have only told a select few that I know will support me. If I was ever asked though, I would tell the truth. I'm slowly 'outing' myself at the moment.
Sometimes I get so frustrated I just want to scream out 'I have bipolar' and paint it on my forehead, hoping that this will help people to understand me. What I forget when I feel like this, is that not everyone understands what bipolar is. Most people's knowledge, if any, probably comes from the media, which frequently associates bipolar and schizophrenia with violence. I would have to be the least violent person that I know. This makes me glad that I have never actually done this.
The label of bipolar is now in my medical records. And given that bipolar is for life, I will always carry this label. Maybe as long as I don't turn my label into a self-fulfilling prophecy, I can use it to my advantage to help myself and others understand what is going on in my head.
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