The Trouble with Labels

Two years ago at TEDx SFU, I outed myself as having “Bipolar Disorder”. I thought I knew what that meant and was committed to owning my story instead of running from it. Perhaps I should not have been so quick to claim this label for myself.

I’ve recently learned that I was misdiagnosed. So here’s the trouble with mental health labels; in addition to carrying tremendous social stigma, they are not necessarily accurate. The lack of scientific rigour when it comes to mental health diagnosis means that you can be given a label at the discretion of a doctor with very little background information or testing. The cost of misdiagnosis is significant. I became extremely ill on the medications I was given, and my mental health didn’t improve – in fact my overall brain functioning was compromised.

With the limitations of our current system to determine accurate diagnosis, I believe it is wise to question one’s diagnosis and advocate for a more thorough and integrated health assessment. Changes to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic manual for mental disorders) mean that more people are being swept into mental illness categories like Bipolar, labelled, and told they must accept their diagnosis and with it the prevailing wisdom, “just take your meds.” For many people, a diagnosis may be a helpful place to begin treatment and support. This was not my experience, and for those, like me, who are misdiagnosed, how can you be set on a path to mental wellness when the baseline information is inaccurate?

I’m more mindful now of the limitations of these diagnostic labels. Psychiatry is the least scientific of all the medical professions, yet the latitude that doctors are given to determine your diagnosis with the stroke of a pen is enormous. We’ve given a lot of power to a system that is often not geared toward individual recovery but is successful in creating millions of lifetime customers for psychiatric medication.

“And I think in psychiatry and psychology, there’s been an increased realization that there are risks to diagnoses as well as benefits. And seeing any individual patient, it’s very important to adapt the general guidelines to that person’s specific situation, and to ensure that a diagnosis will be more helpful than harmful. It’s the easiest thing in the world to give a diagnosis. It only takes a few mindless minutes, and very often diagnoses are given precisely that way. Eighty percent of medication is dispensed in primary care practice, often after visits of less than ten minutes. A diagnosis once given, can have terrible consequences that haunt and last a lifetime.” – Allen Frances, MD, Professor Emeritus and former Chair, Department of Psychiatry, Duke University, Chair of the DSM-IV Task Force

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