What Does it Mean to Have a Mental Health Diagnosis?

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What is the reason and purpose of a diagnosis? Mental Health Professionals use a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) we are currently using the fifth edition of this manual (DSM-5). The fact that we are on the fifth edition of this manual since 1952 already tells us something. They are not ideas that are set in stone. In fact when the fifth one came out in 2013 there was much debate and deliberation by professionals in the field to decide what changes were to be made.


A diagnosis is merely a set up symptoms that often appear together. That’s it. There is a lot of debate in the field of the usefulness of using diagnosis. On one hand, every single person is so completely individual and unique. Why would we ever want to put anyone in a box?? On the other hand it can make it easier for professionals in the field to communicate to one another about client’s symptom set for purposes of staffing cases or providing continuity of care. But the number one reason we continue to use the DSM is for reimbursement purposes.


When you go to the doctor the doctor has to tell the insurance company why you were there and why they should pay the doctor, for example your doctor may tell the insurance company that you had the flu or a broken arm. Mental health professionals also have to tell the insurance company why they should pay for services and that is where the DSM comes in. For clients who utilize their insurance for treatment, a diagnosis code is required. So if you or someone you love has a mental health diagnosis it does not change what you know or love about that person or about yourself, although it can also help put things in perspective at times! Sometimes it can shed some light on struggles you already know you are having. But other than that, I would not stress about this idea of having a “mental health diagnosis” because having a diagnosis can range anywhere from “Adjustment Disorder” meaning you are going through a lot at once and adjusting to change or can include diagnosis for less common things like you see in the movies such as “Schizophrenia”.


Sometimes I will have clients that come to my office believing they or their child has a long list of disorders. Sure, some clients may have more than one but often what has happened is different professionals have found a different diagnosis to try to explain the client’s symptoms. The client than believes they must have the diagnosis the previous provider communicated PLUS the diagnosis the current provider gave. There has been research on this. Even the top professionals in the field do not always agree on what diagnosis best fits an individual’s unique situation. Just like if you were to go to several doctors for a health concern they may not all agree on what is wrong, the same thing happens in the mental health realm. There is a reason they call it “practicing medicine”, sure it’s a science but also an art.


So the question is this…. DOES IT REALLY MATTER? If one professional describes your set of symptoms one way and a different professional describes your set of symptoms another way does it mean they can not provide you quality care that can be helpful to that particular set of symptoms? Sure, we as professionals need to be sure we are being diligent and getting all of the information and doing our best to diagnosis in an accurate way. But at the end of the day, for you as a client, whatever words we use to describe your set of symptoms does not change what you are currently experiencing. What matters is relief from those symptoms and feeling better.


If you have questions about if you have a diagnosis or what that means in your situation. Talk to your health care provider. I’m sure they would be happy to communicate this to you. But I would not stress about having a mental health diagnosis because a good number of professionals would not use this system if insurance companies did not require it. As you likely learned in middle school, labels are not often helpful when applied to people. 




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Theresa Leskowat MS LPC is Founder and Owner of Clear Vista Counseling. Theresa is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in providing anxiety treatment and divorce counseling.