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nebule's avatar

Do you think labelling psychological illnesses and disorders helps or hinders healing and recovery?

Asked by nebule (16436points) August 10th, 2011

I remember my counsellor telling me once that she didn’t think that labelling people with psychological disorders, was particularly helpful in that it can lead to a client getting stuck with the label rather than working through an individual’s specific problems/ issues.

I tend to agree with this in terms of outsiders labelling us. However, I’ve recently started reading a book which resonates with my experience on so many levels and have found myself saying “That’s exactly what I ‘have’!”.

Knowing that I’m not just wandering around in the dark with multiple issues but that actually there is a name for it and that it can be found to have biological and psychological (not to mention environmental and other…) causes feels refreshing and comforting.

The problem I have is precisely what I think my counsellor was warning me against: the minute you begin to talk to people about said disorder, they immediately start formulating an opinion upon it…upon you and you either get labelled according to how they perceive you or they discourage you from labelling yourself because (for example…) “you’re not that bad though are you!” (trying to be helpful I suppose).

Would love to know your thoughts and experiences in this area, Thank you in advance xxx

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21 Answers

Blackberry's avatar

Things need labels and names. What would we call…everything?
I think we could narrow this down and tackle the problem of people being misinformed about many things in general. Kate the Great asked a question similar to this about mental illness.

Kardamom's avatar

When it comes to health and conditions, things need to be labeled pretty specifically, otherwise the doctors and the counselors would not be able to know what is wrong with you.

Consider the non-label thing with regular medical conditions. It would be less than helpful to say that Anne is sick, rather than saying that Anne has pancreatitis. So I think the same thing goes for mental illnesses too. What works for severe depression is not the same thing that works for szhizophenia. The better the doctors are able to pinpoint the problem, the eaiser it is for them to help the patient.

What needs to be done away with are the stigmas associated with mental illnesses. No one blames the patient for having cancer the same way that they do for being crazy. Just the word crazy, itself, causes a problem. Crazy is a eupemism, not a proper label.

DarlingRhadamanthus's avatar

This is a double-edged sword. When you are attempting to heal a label isn’t a good one, I don’t think. (Example…cancer, heart disease, he’s bipolar). I only say this because when you are suffering from a possible terminal disease, the energy of people around you who associate those diseases with “death” are basically not helping you heal. The label sticks and then you become obsessed with the label and staying clear of the negative associations (for yourself, especially) is more difficult and can mentally (and emotionally) hinder your healing.

However, in the case of diseases that are not “visible” in the physical…depression, IBS, colitis…or chronic fatigue (for example)....people will assume that you are “okay” because you are obviously ambulatory and functioning. When this happens, no one really understands that you, too, are ill….and need some space. So, if you label it…“I am suffering from chronic depression….” they might give you the space to heal, rather than expect you to go to Cousin Fifi’s wedding and make all the floral arrangements like you have for every other family wedding. Basically, in this case, a label actually helps and not hinders.

I am amazed by people who automatically think that if you are not in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV….you must be okay. There are a lot of diseases that do not present in that way. Mental illness, from mild to severe, for one.

I think that if you find a “label” for a disease makes you feel like “Thank goodness, there’s a name for what I have! I’m not going nuts!” then that is okay. You can use it to find solutions to your problems/disease. Just don’t get hung up on it. You decide whether you want to tell Mr X or Ms Y…it’s up to you.

Basically, a label for a disease…can either empower you toward health…or hinder you. But ultimately, you are in control of how you deal with it.

SpatzieLover's avatar

My son and my husband have found comfort in their label. Without the label of Asperger’s or ASD, neither of them would be able to get the psychological assistance they need. Without the label, I wouldn’t know what books to read, or how to educate myself on how to better assist them.

Labeling is indeed a double edged sword, though: In the US, without labels, you can’t get medical care paid for. With the labels, you can be denied coverage with a pre-existing condition.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I’m bipolar. The day I was diagnosed was my independence day. Finally, I understood all the outlandish behavior I’d perpetrated for so many years.

More importantly, it wasn’t my fault. There was a reason for my uncontrollable symptoms.

I got this from a label. A diagnosis.

This isn’t to say that the going has been easy since then. It’s been far from it at times, but I am better off with a treatable diagnosis than without.

lillycoyote's avatar

I think any kind of disorder, physical or psychological disorder has to have some kind of label or description, what would the alternative be? The problem with mental illness is that there is still a lot of stigma surrounding it. I think the important thing is not so much that a disease or a disorder has a label as it is to make sure you don’t define yourself entirely by it once it’s applied to you. It may sound overly PC but in terms of how a person views him or herself, it is healthier, I think, for a someone to think, for example, not “Am bipolar” but “I am a person with bipolar disorder.” Then you don’t allow the disease or the disorder to completely define you as a person. People are a lot more than their diseases or disorders.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Why is there such a stigma with mental illness? If you have a chemical imbalance in your heart for example, that’s OK, but not if it’s in your brain?

DarlingRhadamanthus's avatar

@lillycoyote….Great answer!
@Adirondackwannabe….I have no idea. I think it is historical “she’s crazy” or “he’s nuts” has been used as a blanket statement for centuries, I suppose. And a lot of people think that mental illness is something you can change overnight…if you just try or perhaps that mental illness is an excuse someone uses not to engage in society. That’s ridiculous. I agree. I hope things change. And I think it is really unfair, too that people who struggle with mental illness are relegated to a forgotten corner of society. More than that, that insurance companies have some sort of low cut-off for counseling (say, six sessions or something outlandish like that.) What can you fix in six sessions? I think that psychological help for people (aside from drugs, that is) is in dire lack in most countries. Sometimes, just talking is an amazing health benefit. (Not always…if there is a chemical imbalance) but a lot of times. I also think that there are a lot of natural cures for chemical imbalances, too. But those aren’t covered either.

Aethelflaed's avatar

Both. More than anything, I think that incorrect diagnoses (often because of unclear, poorly written guidelines) hinder treatment. And so do diagnoses where the DSM criteria isn’t really reflective of the reality of the situation. Labeling tends to be more helpful when it’s pretty clear-cut if that’s definitely what you have, and this is definitely how you treat it, and there’s not a whole lot of gray area or nuance. Labels also seem to be more hurtful when it’s a) severe and b) not a chemical imbalance, so it’s just another thing for someone who already has issues to have issues about. But, it’s really hard to figure out what treatments work for which problems and have that info readily and easily available to practicing therapists without labels. It’s a work in progress.

@Adirondackwannabe Probably because if you have a heart issue, the only person you’re going to hurt is yourself. The same is not true of mental disorders. And, not all mental disorders are chemical imbalances; many of them are things you can only change without meds. Not to mention that while the getting the disorder in the first place might not be your fault, it is your responsibility, and if you’re older and have made no attempts to change your behavior and get better, that is your fault.

lillycoyote's avatar


Not to mention that while the getting the disorder in the first place might not be your fault, it is your responsibility, and if you’re older and have made no attempts to change your behavior and get better, that is your fault.

I have to disagree. Not getting treatment when a person has certain mental illnesses is not necessarily that person’s “fault” or a failure to take personal responsibility. People can have depressions so severe that it basically “paralizes” them psychologically to the point that they are unable to motivate themselves to get treatment, they are at the mercy of the disease. Also, people with psychotic and thought disorders… people who are not rational can’t necessarily be expected to make rational choices and good judgments about their own care, can they?

Aethelflaed's avatar

@lillycoyote Well, there are tons of people who are severely, even suicidally depressed that get help. And we don’t usually excuse bad behavior just because someone has a mental disorder – just because someone’s a sociopath, it’s ok that they killed those 5 women? Just because someone has borderline personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder, it’s ok that they stabbed their child in the leg with a fork because they truly believed that was what was best for the child? There is no mental disorder in which people with that disorder aren’t getting help, aren’t trying to get better, aren’t taking responsibility for their own actions.

Sunny2's avatar

I think it helps to have a diagnosis. It limits what you have to that and not a hundred other reasons for your symptoms.

The reaction to people reacting negatively to your diagnosis is not to tell them until they already know you. People don’t know how they are supposed to react to someone with a ‘mental condition.’ If they get to know you first, they will know how to act with you. If they notice some unusual behavior, you can just say, “Well, I have a problem with that. I’m working on it.” Then if they want more information, you can decide if it’s time to tell them or not.

I worked as an occupational therapist in a mental hospital for a number of years. Everybody has problems. The difference is that problems differ with each individual. And many people don’t even know what problems they have. You know yours and can work at making the best adjustments you can.

lillycoyote's avatar

@Aethelflaed I’m not going to address some of your other statements above right now, later for those, but:

There is no mental disorder in which people with that disorder aren’t getting help, aren’t trying to get better, aren’t taking responsibility for their own actions.

Huh? Either I have completely misunderstood what you are saying there, you meant to say something else or I am going to have to ask you on what fricking planet are your mental health system and your chronically mentally ill population located?

tranquilsea's avatar

I think the labels are helpful if you can identity with them and then turn somewhere for support and help.

I experienced some pretty enormous traumas and shut down and became rather self destructive. I needed a lot of help but what I got through that time was a bunch of labels that didn’t really make sense to me and ended up hurting me. I finally found therapists who understood that I was an extremely traumatized person and worked with me and not the garbage diagnosis I had been labelled. Unfortunately, by that time I had a heavy mistrust of therapists.

I was finally diagnosed with PTSD which made sense to me. I have had years of dynamic psycho-therapy with a psychiatrist who understands me and I can say definitively that some labels help and some harm. Therapists really need to listen to their patients.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@lillycoyote Ok, I get that you disagree with me, but I don’t know why. I may have meant something other than what you took it to mean, but I don’t know what you took it to mean, so…

lillycoyote's avatar

@Aethelflaed Most importantly, where I disagree with you is:

Do you actually believe that “There is no mental disorder in which people with that disorder aren’t getting help”? Honestly, really, you actually think that’s the truth? Unless you consider prison and the streets of America to be great places for the chronically mentally ill to get help, unless you’ve read yours and everyone else’s health insurance policies carefully and understand the limits on mental health coverage, I really don’t understand how you can possibly believe such a thing.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@lillycoyote Ok, name a mental disorder. Here’s a list for reference. No matter which one you pick, right now, there’s someone out there who’s been diagnosed with that disorder that is trying to get better. In fact, there are several someones with that disorder who are trying to get better.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@lillycoyote Ok, so, stab in the dark here: You thought I was saying that everyone who has a mental disorder is getting help for it. Yes/no? Because that’s not at all what I was saying. Rather, that you can’t say that, for example, those with bipolar I have such extreme and permanent disruption that it literally prevents them from getting better, as evidence by all the people with bipolar I who are getting better and getting help and taking responsibility. If it was true that a certain disorder completely prevented them from doing so, then it would be true for all people with that disorder. And while many don’t get help, there are enough out there that are getting help that the argument doesn’t hold water.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@Aethelflaed : I can’t speak for @lillycoyote and it’s the middle of the night here in the middle of the Pacific, so I might not make any sense, but here goes.

A lot of people with mental illness in the US are unable to get help due to lack of adequate health care for various reasons. It might be due to the lack of insurance coverage. It might be the area they live in having a dearth of mental health care providers. It might be their own reluctance to seek out care.

Just because there are some people with a problem getting care doesn’t mean that all people with that problem are able to. We are simply not able in this forum to go into each and every individual situation with enough depth and render judgement about a person. In fact, we shouldn’t be doing that.

The OP in this case is about labeling people with mental illness and how helpful or harmful that might be. I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I’ve had great comfort from the fact that my illness had a name I could assign to it to understand my sometimes erratic behavior. On the other hand, I have experienced scarring rejection when I’ve revealed my disorder to close friends.

The labels have helped me and hurt me.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@hawaii_jake True. But we still have the idea of personal responsibility, that each person is responsible for their own behavior. If someone goes on a shoplifting spree, they can’t plead manic to a court, regardless of their socio-economic status. So why should each of us say to our bipolar partner “oh, honey, it’s totally cool that you cheated on me, since you have no control over your manic phases”? Or “It’s not really your fault that you kidnapped our children because the custody proceedings weren’t really working out in your favor, since it was your alter (DID) that did it, not you”?

nebule's avatar

@Aethelflaed I do think we all need to take responsibility, but not everyone – certainly those that are undiagnosed can do this. This is my case in point. Labelling therefore assists people in getting themselves well, but this must also be assisted with access to healthcare and support. Even labelling can therefore be worthless if the person doesn’t know what to do about their diagnosis. Some people can’t read and don’t have the ability to research for self-help, some people don’t have the money for healthcare…the numbers of variables infinite.

Some people are therefore ignorant through no fault of their own and I think it’s society’s responsibility to take care of these people rather than judge them for not taking action.

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