The Benefits and Potential Drawbacks of Mental Health Labels

In the world of physical ailments, putting a label on a particular illness can be extremely beneficial. If you have a mysterious chronic allergic reaction that’s causing a strain on your life, getting a diagnosis and putting a name to the problem is helpful. Unfortunately, mental health carries a stigma that most other physical ailments do not have, and in some cases, a specific label may do more harm than good.

With the identification of a mental health issue comes the promise and hope of treatment. It also allows for the realization that the mental illness is indeed a disease with avenues for treatment. Having a specific diagnosis allows people to connect with support groups. In many cases, it’s an empowering feeling to have a label for mental illness. A study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health says that labeling youths as “at-risk” for mental illness, like schizophrenia, outweighs the potential harm that the stigma of a label carries. Labels allow for easy communication between patient and physician.

Labels, however, have the potential to increase symptoms. If bad behavior is thought to be the result of a specific diagnosed mental illness, for instance, it may contribute to further bad behavior. Being labeled as having a particular disorder may also increase symptoms that are already difficult for the person to deal with. In children, formal diagnosis at a young age may stick with them for their entire lives and lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of behavior and lifelong stigma.

A report in the Association for Psychological Science says that people avoid seeking help from mental health professionals because they’re afraid of the stigma associated with mental illness. There is fear that being labeled may have real consequences.

A University of Missouri study also shows that patients often have difficulty with medical terminology, which may also apply in the field of mental health. Patients may not always have a deep understanding of their diagnostic label and may have preconceived notions about a specific mental illness.

In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Marty Nemko explains that some diagnoses carry more weight than others and may have the potential to alienate patients. Further, a diagnosis does not describe the whole individual. Instead, it reduces the person to a simplified label.

Nemko suggests a move away from by-the-book diagnoses to a holistic approach. A one-size-fits-all method is not an appropriate way to approach mental health. Practitioners need to engage with patients on a deeper level, and patients must not be afraid to find mental health professionals who are willing to forego quick fixes and avoid doling out diagnostic labels without consideration for the whole person. While labeling is undoubtedly useful in a myriad of situations, it should not be the end goal and is not always a helpful solution when dealing with mental illness.


Written by: Steph Coelho

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