Understanding Your Diagnosis

Some people with mental health conditions experience relief and hope when they get a diagnosis. Others may feel like a diagnosis is "just words."

You may even feel several competing emotions at the same time—relief at having a name for the things bothering you, but fear and anger that you have an illness. You may feel that the diagnosis you received carries negative or damaging perceptions and may not want to accept it, but getting a diagnosis is a useful step in receiving effective treatment and improving your quality of life.

Getting a Diagnosis

Unlike diabetes or cancer there is no medical test that can provide a diagnosis of mental illness. A health care professional can do a number of things in an evaluation including a physical exam and long term monitoring to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing symptoms.

Once other medical conditions are ruled out, a person might be referred to a mental health professional that will use The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth addition (DSM-5), to make a diagnosis. The DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association lists criteria including feelings, symptoms and behaviors over a period of time that a person must meet in order to be officially diagnosed with an illness.

Why a Diagnosis Matters

A medical professional determines a diagnosis by interviewing you about your history of symptoms. Sometimes a doctor will require a couple of medical tests to rule out possible physical ailments, but we cannot evaluate mental health itself through blood tests or other biometric data. Instead, doctors use their experience to determine how your set of symptoms fit into what we know about mental health.

The diagnosis is an important tool for you and your doctor. Doctors and therapists use a diagnosis to advise you on treatment options and future health risks.

Another reason a diagnosis matters is that it tells health insurance companies that you have a condition requiring medical care. A doctor's diagnosis is also necessary to qualify for Social Security disability support or for job protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Even though labeling your symptoms doesn't automatically relieve them, congratulate yourself on having moved forward in the process of getting treatment and protecting your rights.

What Next

You may already have learned as much as possible about mental illness, or you may be facing the topic for the first time. In either case, a diagnosis is a good starting point for learning more.

When your doctor talks about your condition, take notes so you can look up your diagnosis later. Ask your doctor to recommend books and websites with additional information. When you read about your condition, you may find your symptoms match in some ways and don't match in others. This is normal.

Focus on learning about symptoms and treatments. You may come across discouraging predictions about how it's impossible to "cure" serious mental illness. However, with treatment you can reduce or eliminate your symptoms. A diagnosis is a gateway to good treatment, not a sentence to lifetime imprisonment.

If you haven't already found a support group, this is a good time to reach out to others with your condition. NAMI's Peer-to-Peer classes and discussion groups can provide encouragement and advice from people who are living well with mental illnesses.

What if You Disagree about Your Diagnosis?

After reading about your condition, you may have questions for your doctor. How do your symptoms match this diagnosis rather than another? Couldn't it be something else? What if it's a physical illness instead or a misunderstanding?

It's important to feel that your doctor considered all the possibilities. If you disagree with your doctor's evaluation, however, don't automatically quit working with him or her. Your doctor is already familiar with your symptoms, and the diagnosis is simply a tool to help you and your doctor address those symptoms. If possible, it's worth it to stick with a doctor who already knows you.

Ask yourself if you can work with this doctor, not if you believe in this diagnosis. When you discuss your concerns, does your doctor listen to you? Try to answer your questions? Does your doctor show sympathy? Understand your goals? What treatment does the doctor recommend for helping you meet those goals?

Consider whether you can "agree to disagree" about the exact diagnosis, while agreeing to try out the doctor's recommendations for a certain period of time.

Reevaluating a Diagnosis

A diagnosis is only as good as the treatment it leads to. Whether or not you feel confident in your diagnosis, it's important to reevaluate occasionally.

After pursuing treatment for a time, you and your doctor should meet to discuss your progress. Consider how treatment is helping your condition, or if it doesn't seem to be helping. If treatment isn't sufficient, other options for treatment can be considered or changing your diagnosis.

A mental health professional makes the best diagnosis possible with the information they have. Over time, as you work together, he or she will observe you, listen to you, and gather new information to help refine your diagnosis. Your diagnosis is the beginning of an investigation into how to make your life better.