Understanding your diagnosis

Getting a diagnosis for a mental health condition can bring up conflicting emotions. On one hand, you may feel relieved to have a name for your symptoms. On the other hand, you may feel angry or worried about having a mental health condition. You might feel hopeful about the future or concerned about what others might think.

No matter the mix of feelings a diagnosis brings, it is a key step toward receiving treatment and improving your quality of life. 

Getting your diagnosis

A diagnosis for a mental health condition is different than a diagnosis for a physical illness. Unlike with a physical illness, there are no medical tests or scans that can diagnose a mental health condition. 

A diagnosis for a mental health condition is usually made by a mental health professional. They will determine a diagnosis by talking to you about your history of symptoms and referencing diagnostic guidelines. 

Mental health professionals use The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), to diagnose mental health conditions. The DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association, outlines the criteria (feelings, symptoms, and behaviors) that one must meet to be officially diagnosed with a mental health condition.

Why a diagnosis is important

A diagnosis is an important tool for receiving treatment and lessening or alleviating your symptoms. Health care providers will use a diagnosis to determine the next steps and treatment options and to inform you of possible future health risks.

A diagnosis is also necessary for health insurance and social services. Health insurance companies require a diagnosis to know that you have a condition requiring medical care. A diagnosis is also needed to qualify for Social Security disability support or job protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After you get a diagnosis

A diagnosis is a useful tool for learning. Use your diagnosis as an opportunity to research and learn more about your condition and symptoms. In your conversations with your doctor, ask for recommendations for books, websites, and other resources that you can use to help understand your diagnosis. 

Look through common symptoms associated with your condition. How do your symptoms compare?

Familiarize yourself with treatment options. This knowledge will be helpful when you talk with your doctor about the next steps in your treatment journey. 

Try to focus on the positive; seek stories from others with your condition who have experienced improvements in their symptoms.

You may also find it beneficial to find a support group with others with the same diagnosis as you. Peers in a support group can help answer your questions, calm your worries, and give you advice and encouragement. You may also find comfort in hearing the experiences of others in similar situations to yours.  

Monitoring your diagnosis 

When you research your diagnosis, you will likely have more questions. You may even question whether your diagnosis is correct. Could your symptoms mean a different condition? Is it even a mental health condition? 

It is normal to have questions. Remember, your doctor is working with the best available information to make a diagnosis, but every person is different. It is important that you feel comfortable talking to your doctor about your concerns and feel that you are heard and understood. It is also important to have a degree of trust in your doctor and to be willing to try out their recommendations. You and your doctor can collaboratively decide on a treatment plan. 

Once you have been in treatment for some time, you should check in with your doctor to re-evaluate your diagnosis.  Monitor your symptoms and see how the treatment is helping your condition, or if it is helping at all. If the treatment is not making a difference, you and your doctor can consider other options for treatment or explore changing your diagnosis.

While a diagnosis alone will not fix your symptoms, it is a valuable tool on the path to improving your quality of life. 

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Individuals-with-Mental-Illness/Understanding-Your-Diagnosis