Mental disorder diagnoses are terms such as depression, OCD, bipolar, ADHD, or schizophrenia. These terms allow psychiatrists to have a common language. These are terms used to categorize people’s behaviour, emotions, and perceptions.

It is important to note that mental health diagnostic terms are descriptive. This is different than in other areas of medicine, where doctors describe and discover illness through scientific process that focuses on physical aspects of the body.

Psychiatrists hope that one day biological causes for their categories of mental disorders (also called “mental illness”) will become clear (Kupfer, 2013) but they have been searching for many decades (Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013). At this time, psychiatric diagnosis remains descriptive only.

Mental disorder diagnoses have many functions, which can be positive or negative. People have a wide range of experiences once receiving their diagnosis from “validating and positive,” to “a mix of good and bad,” to “negative or harmful.”

As always, your unique experience is valid.

On the positive side, diagnosis can convey a sense of understanding. A sense of an answer and validation that can be a relief to receive. It can open the door to resources, financial help, prescription drugs, and a community of support.

Mental health diagnosis is also used within the medical administrative process to communicate with other healthcare providers and for billing purposes.

On negative side, mental health diagnosis may cause unintended problems down the road.

Note: Doctors, psychologists, nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants are the only professionals in Canada that make mental disorder diagnoses. In Canada, Social workers, family therapists, counsellors, teachers, midwives, and nurses do not.

Mental disorder diagnoses describe what is thought to be wrong with you. The idea that people are defective or that their minds are “not normal” can affect a person’s sense of identity. It can lead to difficulties trusting yourself or your mind, which can also increase dependence on your health care provider. People can find that their emotions or mental experiences become frightening to them.

Mental disorder diagnoses can be a deciding factor in child custody, adoption, and criminal cases (Deutsch & Clyman, 2016). They can affect other areas of life as well. They can prevent you from pursuing some professional licenses (DeFehr, 2020; Transport Canada, 2018) or being approved for some types of insurance — or when approved, put you in a higher insurance premium category (Sarmah-Hightower, 2020).

They may also be used to determine immigration and deportation status (El-lahib, 2015; Joseph, 2015; Mi-Kyung, Varghese, Jindal, & Efird, 2017) and can work against people seeking organ transplant eligibility (Cahn-Fuller & Parent, 2017). 

Mental disorder diagnosis often occurs within the first few minutes of an appointment (Frances, 2013). The diagnosis is then documented in your medical record. There is no method of removing a diagnosis from your medical record, even if you are no longer having these problems, you received your diagnosis as a child, or if your healthcare provider thinks it is incorrect; the original diagnosis must still be legible (Canadian Medical Protective Association, 2009, 2021; DeFehr, 2020).

There is also no way to legally be cleared or officially considered recovered or cured from a mental disorder (DeFehr, 2020). The only options available after diagnosis are in remission (full or partial) or relapse (APA, 2013). Just as there is no lab test verifying the presence of mental illness there is no lab test to prove the absence of mental illness (Cosgrove & Vaswani, 2019). There is no limit on how many diagnoses a person can receive.

Mental disorder diagnosis also unfortunately come with stigma. Stigma means “an attribute that is deeply discrediting” (Goffman, 1963, p.3).

One of the questions in the field is where stigma comes from. Is it from the public’s judgmental attitude of these problems, or from a model that uses labels of abnormal? It could be both. Stigma is highly unfair, but unfortunately can change the way you or others feel about you.