In the last decade, and even more so after the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become more aware of the importance of psychological health, and many find it more normalised to seek therapy. Today’s digital age, with social media, celebrities, and influencers, has brought about a significant shift in how we perceive and understand psychological health, and therapy is not only for “crazy people” anymore. We hear about people’s struggles, their problems, how they accept their problems, and how they try to manage them. This is a good thing as psychological problems can affect our lives just as much, sometimes even more, as physical problems. Diagnostic labels, once confined to the offices of psychologists and psychiatrists, have become increasingly normalised, and words like “anxiety”, “depression”, “trauma”, and “dissociation” has become a part of our daily vocabulary when we describe how we feel. While this shift has its merits and positive effects, the increased focus and daily use of diagnostic labels have also introduced some challenges that we need to be aware of. This article will explore the pros and cons of diagnostic labels, acknowledging their growing prominence in our digitally connected world.

What are diagnostic labels?

Diagnostic labels are terms used by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to describe and classify specific psychological health problems that a person might be experiencing. A diagnosis specifies different symptoms, feelings, thoughts, or behaviours a person experiences or emits. Depending on the frequency, intensity, and affect these symptoms have on or daily life and life quality, a diagnosis may be given. A diagnosis does not necessary explain why a person is struggling, but can help describe what a person is struggling with, being a term used when an accumulation of symptoms are presented together.

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The Normalisation of Diagnostic Labels

Celebrities, influencers and social media platforms have played a crucial role in breaking down the barriers surrounding psychological health discussions. Many prominent figures have opened up about their struggles and experiences with diagnoses such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD. This transparency has helped increase awareness and reduce the stigma associated with psychological problems and mental health conditions, encouraging others to seek help and share their own stories.

Furthermore, social media platforms provide spaces for individuals to connect with others who share similar experiences and diagnoses. Support groups and online communities have sprung up, offering valuable peer support and resources for those navigating the complexities of psychological health. However, this increased visibility of psychological health issues and diagnostic labels also raises important questions about their use, understanding, and potential consequences. For example, we can see celebrities promoting the use of anxiolytics and antidepressants, powerful psychopharmacological treatments. The use of medication for psychological problems can be a very helpful as a short-term tool in order to facilitate the implementation of changes and development of good tools and strategies, however, this must be evaluated in each specific case with a mental health professional. Advertising the use as something that will change your life and take away your problems can be quite damaging. Not only is it not true, to this day we do not have a pill that by itself can take away our psychological problems, there are more things necessary in order to treat a psychological problem, but also, if the use of medication is the only treatment plan one follows, then one will have to be on medication for the rest of one’s life, which has been shown to have limited effects. It is good to remove the stigma of psychopharmacological treatments, as they are sometimes necessary and not problematic. However, some clients have sought therapy thinking that they are in denial or have suppressed their problems as they are the only person in their friend group who is not currently on anxiolytics or antidepressants, thinking there must be something wrong with them. Here, we might have taken the normalisation too far, as medication should be a helpful tool when necessary, and not a basic human necessity.

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The Pros of Diagnostic Labels

The use of diagnostic labels can be a helpful tool for professional, enabling communication between disciplines and different professionals. It can be helpful when investigating certain problems and treatments, and give guidelines on how to intervene when encountering psychological problems.

For many individuals it gives a sense of relief when receiving a diagnosis, as one feels there is now a word or an explanation for what one is going through, and that this is not something one is going through alone. The normalisation of diagnostic labels has provided validation and recognition to many individuals, and knowing that others have similar experiences can reduce feelings of isolation and encourage people to seek the help they need. Diagnostic labels serve as a common language, enabling individuals to communicate their experiences more effectively. When people use labels like «depression» or «social anxiety,» it facilitates understanding and fosters empathy, both within and outside the mental health community.

In many healthcare systems, diagnostic labels are necessary for insurance coverage and funding allocation. A recognised diagnosis may ensure that individuals have access to the financial resources needed to support their therapeutic process.

The Cons of Diagnostic Labels

Even though there are many pros to the use and normalisation of diagnostic labels, there are some challenges we need to be aware of and take into account when using them.

Despite the positive aspects of normalisation, diagnostic labels can still carry stigma, even in today’s more open and accepting society. Prejudice and misconceptions about specific mental health conditions persist, leading to discrimination and social isolation. Some individuals may still avoid seeking help or disclosing their struggles due to the fear of receiving a diagnostic label, even though there is an increased awareness and normalisation of psychological problems. Sometimes receiving a diagnosis may also have a negative effect in other areas of a person’s life. For example, in some countries, you may have to pay extra for health insurance if you have received a diagnosis.

Diagnostic labels can introduce biases into both treatment and perception. Clinicians may focus on the label rather than the individual’s unique needs and strengths, and the specific functions the problems may have. We would therefore focus more on description of the problem and its symptoms instead of its specific cause and current maintenance. Additionally, the labels may even reinforce the experienced problems as they become a part of the identity of the person. For example, a person might avoid or be exempt from certain situations because of their diagnosis, when maybe they would have been able to manage it more or less well. It may also make it more challenging to get better, as one might focus more on the diagnosis than the treatment, making the diagnosis last forever when it does not have to.

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The increased use of diagnostic labels in our daily vocabulary has led to a potential risk of overpathologisation, where normal variations in behaviour and emotions are labeled as disorders. This can result in unnecessary medicalisation and treatment. For example, nowadays we more often hear “I am anxious about the exam” and “that made me really depressed” instead of “I am nervous” or “I am sad”, which are perfectly normal emotions we sometimes need to have and experience. These emotions are not problematic or something that should be treated, as negative emotions are a necessary part of human life, as long as it does not start to affect your daily functioning or general quality of life.

The diagnostic process is not foolproof. Misdiagnoses can occur due to the complexity of mental health conditions, overlapping symptoms, or inadequate assessment methods. An incorrect label can lead to inappropriate treatment, sometimes even making a person feel worse. Also, it is important to remember that all individuals and their struggles are different. Two people with anxiety might need two completely different interventions, even though you could give them the same diagnostic label. If we use a standardised treatment plan or protocol with a certain diagnosis, we might not help the person in the best way possible. While labels can be empowering, they also have the potential to reduce individuals to a set of symptoms, overshadowing their uniqueness, function, and complexity. Additionally, our problems are not static and should be continuously evaluated. The symptoms we displayed when we received the diagnosis change, especially with adequate treatment, and we may therefore not fulfil the criteria of the set diagnosis anymore.

It is not to say that if we limit the use of diagnostic labels it means that a person’s struggles or problems are not that serious and it is the person’s fault they are going through it. A diagnosis should not be necessary for a problem to be serious or require attention and treatment. We always do our best with the resources we have in that moment, but sometimes our best might not help us enough to start feeling better, and may also lead to other negative consequences.

Balancing Act: Using Diagnostic Labels Wisely

In this new era of normalised diagnostic labels and the influence of the digital world, it is essential for psychologists and individuals alike to approach them with care and consideration, and be aware of their pros and cons. Removing stigma and normalising psychological problems is essential, and social media platforms are a great tool in order to achieve this. However, we need to be careful on how it is done, so we do not overpathologise normal negative emotions or problems, as this can then turn into even worse problems. We also need to be careful about who we listen to and follow on social media, as there are a lot of misinformation about psychological problems in social media.

About the author

GAmalie Hylland is a health psychologist at Sinews. She specializes in behavior analysis and modification, working with adolescents and adults. She has experience working with a variety of issues, including anxiety management, phobias and ruminative thoughts, assertive and social skills development, self-esteem, procrastination, self-harm and obsessive compulsive behavior. Her orientation is behavioral therapy, integrating evidence-based techniques and tools to help change the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that cause us problems.

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