Diagnosis: Benefits and Deeper Understanding

By Ashley Barnes

What is a diagnosis?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) is that which is used by mental health professionals in the United States as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. The DSM includes symptoms, descriptions, and other criteria for diagnosing mental health disorders. In order to reach a diagnosis, individuals must meet distinct criteria as outlined in the DSM. 

In order for a disorder to be outlined by the DSM, it has to cause the individual some form of distress, may present the individual with potential danger (such as betting all one’s money during a manic episode), deviance (what is deemed culturally abnormal), and dysfunction (impairment in areas of life such as interpersonal relationships, work, or tasks of daily living). 

It is important to note that though we may find ourselves relating to descriptions of a certain diagnosis, only licensed mental health professionals can assess and diagnose individuals, as they have gone through extensive training and can assess with accuracy.

Why do we diagnose?

After thorough assessment and evaluation, mental health professionals will take the gathered information from patients and reach a diagnosis. A diagnosis informs the best courses of action to take in the development of a treatment plan, often entailing evidence-based treatment. Evidence-based treatment describes treatment methods that have been consistently researched to be effective in diminishing symptoms of mental health disorders. An example of an evidence-based treatment would be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for the treatment of anxiety and depression. 

Similarly, an accurate diagnosis can inform which medications psychiatrists prescribe for the treatment of such mental health disorders. For example, after a psychiatrist assesses and diagnoses a patient with depression, the psychiatrist may prescribe the patient antidepressants; if a patient is diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression after having tried several psychotropic medications, a psychiatrist may recommend ketamine therapy. All in all, a diagnosis can help improve someone’s quality of life by helping direct them to the kind of treatment they could benefit from. Many people also report feeling relief after receiving a diagnosis, having always wondered why they were experiencing certain symptoms and mental health challenges.

Further, a diagnosis has practical purposes. Insurance requires a diagnosis code in order to provide reimbursement for superbills and medical services; they require a reason or basis for which services are provided.

Why a diagnosis does not define you.

Unfortunately, it can be easy to get enveloped in our diagnosis such that we ground our identity in it. If we have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, we may over-identify with it by describing ourselves as “an anxious person.” If we have been diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder, we may hear people describing us as “bipolar.” The way we speak to ourselves and about others who are living with mental health conditions directly contributes to the harmful stigma that surrounds mental health issues.

Instead of describing someone who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia as “schizo,” we can be respectful by referring to them as “someone who is living with schizophrenia” or someone who “experiences schizophrenia.” This provides a separation from the person and what they have been diagnosed with. The purpose of a diagnosis is to provide information that will lead to the most effective treatment; its purpose is not to create further distress or harm to an individual. 

Many people who are diagnosed with mental health disorders carry on with very functional and fulfilling lives, going on to become lawyers, doctors, and company owners. Those diagnosed with a mental health disorder can absolutely have enriching and deep relationships with others, having wonderful lives. Many of these individuals have benefitted from evidence-based treatment methods like therapy or psychotropic medications. 

Millions of people who walk about the world meet criteria for mental health disorders, as they are more common than a lot of us realize. You are not alone and your diagnosis doesn’t define you: it is meant to help you.


Elyn Saks: A tale of mental illness – from the inside – Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California Gould Law School, an expert in mental health law, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner speaks about her journey while living with schizophrenia in this powerful Ted Talk.