About Polly Chester

Polly is a thinker, writer and social worker with passions for human rights, caring for the environment, social justice, social policy, epistemology, philosophy and psychology

Enough with the mental health labels already!

It’s commendable that society’s acceptance of mental health issues as serious health concerns is increasing all the time.

But have we become too slap-happy with mental health labels?

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) most recent text revision contains over 300 mental disorders. That’s a lot -the original DSM contained less than half that number when introduced in 1952.

The increased number of maladies with official mental health labels raises the important question of whether we are turning into “diagnosis junkies”.

Mental health labels around disorders aren’t like sticky name badge labels that you get when you attend a conference – they are more like tattoos. Once a mental disorder label is attached, it can become a fixed identity. Like laser surgery is used to remove tattoos, we can administer corrective therapy to erase an erroneous or expired diagnostic label, but the words will linger hauntingly – possibly forever.

Which is odd, because a mental disorder is possibly little more than a coincidence – a set of thoughts, emotions and behaviour that happen to be juxtaposed just so, for a particular length of time.

I’ve known people who’ve experienced mental health issues in varying capacities and I’ve learned a lot from them. Despite their behaviours being markedly different, equally valuable lessons about behaviour management and responsibility can be learned from everyone on the acute to mild continuum.

A common factor among people with mental health issues (and common factors are rare because human conditions are unique) is that, despite any diagnosis, we still need to take responsibility for our actions and behaviour.

Using mental health issues as an excuse for acting out irrationally or antisocially on a sustained basis is not good enough. There comes a point where we must acknowledge that when it comes to behaviour, we engineer our own puppet strings.

These are the top three things I tire of hearing from people who’ve been cursed with a diagnostic label:

1. “I can’t help it that I am unwell…”

You can’t help that you’re unwell? Hmmm. Let’s break that down. How do we respond to a physical illness? Just as for a virus or infection, self-care strategies are vital for recovery. Before prescribing medication or beginning therapy, the first things a mental health practitioner will prescribe are sleep, personal hygiene, regular exercise, healthy food, engaging in relaxing pastimes, meditation, deep breathing, avoiding stimulant and depressant drugs and establishing a daily routine.

Taking inventory of your life and figuring out if you actually like what’s happening in it is also useful. Are you in a dysfunctional relationship? Do you hate your job? Have you just had a series of stressful events unfold that have rendered you exhausted? Have you dealt with the demons of your past?

Are you really doing everything you can to help yourself be well?

2. “My doctor says I need these…”

Medication is certainly useful at times, particularly in situations where people are in danger of harming themselves or others in a physical capacity. But I would advise against medication wherever possible. If you are feeling distress, look in on it with curiosity, don’t run from it. I’m not an advocate for self-flagellation or masochism, but solemnly believe that there’s a great deal of merit in feeling, rather than suppressing negative emotions. If you suppress them with meds, you inhibit your ability to deal with the cause of them, which may work out ok for a while, but really just puts off dealing with the issue until another time. Doctors get it wrong sometimes, too. Feel free to obtain second, third and fourth opinions – it’s interesting to see how the range of human experience in GP’s influences how quickly prescription pads are whipped out.

3. “It’s my bipolar/Aspergers/adult ADHD/OCD playing up…”

I’ve known a lot of adults to be ‘diagnosed’ with mental health issues later in life, and they now delight in explaining away every negative personality characteristic they have by attributing it to that diagnosis. Massive mood swings, painful attention to detail and hyperactivity are actually really common in all humans, because we are reactive, social animals who have hormones and electricity pumping around our bodies independent of our own control. Is it really necessary to explain all that eccentricity away with some quacky diagnosis? To say that you have obsessive-compulsive disorder because you have a particular penchant for a clean and orderly house is insulting to people who fully experience the gamut of pain and anxiety associated with that disorder.

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Labeling a mental health issue with a diagnosis, just like naming a hurricane, is effective shorthand for a state of crisis, but doesn’t actually make it any easier to deal with. The manifestation of symptoms and behaviour resulting from thoughts and emotions must be self-managed responsibly.

 

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Visit this official Australian Government website for more information about mental health.

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