For years there has been debate about whether or not mental health issues are illnesses which can be clearly diagnosed according to the symptoms a person experiences. For some, labelling a person’s distress can make them feel worse, as it suggests that there is something ‘wrong’ with them that needs to be ‘cured’. On the other hand, some people welcome a diagnosis as they feel it gives them a meaningful explanation for the way they feel. A diagnosis is also sometimes needed for accessing certain benefits or therapies.
There are many people who reject the idea of ‘mental illness’ altogether, on the grounds that there is no scientific way to identify it in a similar way to a physical condition (eg a broken leg is clearly identified as a broken leg by an x-ray). A famous experiment was carried out in the early 1970s where eight researchers, none of whom had any mental health issues, tried to gain admission to a number of psychiatric hospitals in the USA. The only symptom they reported to psychiatrists was hearing voices. Seven of the researchers were diagnosed as schizophrenic and admitted to hospital. Once in the hospital they stopped reporting that they were hearing voices. They then told staff that they hadn’t really had any symptoms and that they were fine, and yet it was almost three weeks before they were discharged, and most kept their diagnosis of schizophrenia, albeit ‘in remission’. The researchers concluded that anyone could ‘fool’ psychiatrists into giving them a diagnosis, suggesting that the diagnostic system was flawed.
People are individuals when it comes to their feelings about diagnosis. The key is that people are listened to, believed and given the opportunity to explore what will help them most.