Is diagnosing a person and labeling them as mentally ill truly helpful? Ironically, when I first entered therapy it was because I feared mental illness. I did my best going to therapy for over 16 years, but to no avail. I received not one diagnosis but four of them. I finally realized that the mental health system is designed primarily to diagnose and place labels on human beings. These diagnoses or labels not only deem people to be mentally ill or defective, they also often prevent people from reaching their true potential.
Over the past 20 years of working with individuals on a one-on-one basis and in a group setting, I have heard my fair share of diagnoses. Some diagnoses are more common than others, for example: anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder. And others are less common, such as: schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, or dissociative disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder.)
Interestingly enough, what I also learned over the years is that a diagnosis is subject to change. This might occur when an individual meets with a new therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist. It can also happen when an individual goes inpatient for treatment. It can also occur if a client is undergoing a crisis of some sort and exhibits different or new symptoms. Personally speaking, I too have been a recipient of multiple diagnoses, four to be exact.
When I received my first diagnosis, I was elated. I found that, after years of struggling, I finally had a name to attach to my symptoms. I decided to learn as much as I could about my diagnosis in an effort to mitigate my symptoms—finally I could take charge of my life.
As time went by, however, I began exhibiting new symptoms—and my diagnosis changed. I recall that I did not feel as confident the second time around because I would now have to spend an inordinate amount of time learning about my new diagnosis, mitigating symptoms, and struggling to keep two diagnoses at bay.
Ten years later, I went through an incredibly difficult time when my uncle committed suicide. The home I had been raised in as a child was practically burned to the ground. I was also pursuing my graduate degree at the time and these events naturally made things increasingly difficult. My therapist starting using words that I had never heard before and she felt that the symptoms I was exhibiting were different from the ones I had before. I was devastated—I couldn’t believe my ears. I started feeling that I was profoundly mentally ill and I would be defective for the rest of my life.
Fast forward to 2016, when I went to my doctor and she discovered a growth. I had to have it tested to determine if it was malignant or benign, and then had surgery to have it removed. During my surgery, I contracted a severe infection—so severe in fact, that I had to shut down my practice. This event, coupled with the memory of a near-death experience I had during childhood, caused me to exhibit symptoms of trauma. One day while working with my therapist, she began apologizing profusely as she told me that all of my previous diagnoses had been incorrect and that this fourth diagnosis was the correct one. Receiving this new diagnosis was absolutely horrific for me. However, it allowed me to reflect on our present medicalized mental health system and pharmaceuticalized care.
I also realized from my own personal experience in 2016, that while tests were done to determine the presence of cancer in my blood, there were no tests that could be similarly applied to mental illness. Currently, there are no valid, clear, or reliable tests for what is called mental illness. Ironically, like me, millions of people have been diagnosed and have received a permanent mental health record—yet there are no valid tests to prove these diagnoses are even correct. So the final question I leave you with is this, can a diagnosis be detrimental? I definitely know what my answer is, do you?
Monica Gullotta has a Master’s degree in counseling and is the founder and facilitator of the Upstate Group for Panic, Anxiety, and Depression, and the Ray of Hope Wellness Center.