The idea of receiving a diagnosis in any arena, be it medical or psychological, can be intimidating and frightening. However, the benefits for having a diagnosis make it an important avenue to pursue.
Let’s say your child experiences frequent coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest congestion and pain. As a parent, these symptoms can be worrisome. However, once the pediatrician determines that your child has asthma, there is a sense of relief. As human beings we like to know what is going on and what to do about it. And so, even if the medical diagnosis creates a new set of concerns (How serious is this? Will it limit my child in some way?), there is now a course of action. Treatment is administered and an action plan is created. Everyone starts to feel better.
Not that Easy
Unlike medical problems, mental health issues can be more difficult to diagnose. The first obstacle is stigma. Just like people don’t want a diagnosis of cancer, they definitely don’t want to be labeled as “crazy.” As parents, we surely don’t want our children to be abnormal or have “mental health problems.” Since the challenges with mental health are usually less pressing than a broken leg, it is easy to avoid seeking out a diagnosis we don’t really want in the first place.
In addition to stigma, getting a diagnosis is made difficult because many mental health symptoms can be nebulous and explained in different ways. If your pre-teen is unmotivated, complains about homework, and is often irritable, that may seem normal (It’s hormonal. It’s a phase.). However, if you knew that she was struggling to the point of feeling depressed and using self-harm to alleviate these feelings, and that the root of these issues was difficulty with school work due to an underlying learning disorder, that would change things. A diagnosis would allow for treatment and a course of action. Then everyone would start to feel better.
Do I Need to get a Diagnosis?
When is it necessary to seek out a diagnosis? Factors that influence this include:
Type of diagnosis
Some types of diagnoses will need to be formalized in order to receive the desired outcomes. In order for students to receive academic accommodations, there needs to be a formal diagnosis in place. This is clearly most important for the youngest students, but is also helpful for students of any age at any level of education.
In the case of other types of disorders, such as Major Depressive Disorder, there are several important nuances involved in making those determinations that will impact treatment outcomes. Will medication be helpful? Is individual therapy the best course of action? Would intensive outpatient treatment be effective? One of these considerations is insurance. When insurance is involved, a diagnosis is usually required for reimbursement or payment of services.
Sometimes people seek out a diagnosis to help explain their experiences of relationships and the world without needing a formal diagnosis. The best example of this might be an adult man who has difficulties with social relationships and thinks he might have Asperger’s Syndrome, now called High-Functioning Autism. In this situation there are no accommodations to be sought and the knowledge is really for increasing self-awareness and the understanding of loved ones. Most people benefit from having a deeper personal awareness and understanding.
Functioning is Key
A common factor in determining whether or not a diagnosis is warranted includes the individual’s level of functioning. If academic functioning is falling below expectations and homework time is negatively impacting the functioning of the family (e.g., a 15 minute assignment takes an hour), that’s a good example of when to seek professional help. There are many possible explanations for this: an attention-deficit disorder, a learning disorder, a traumatic experience, or maybe even all three. This is a situation where having a diagnosis of an attention-deficit disorder or learning disorder can drastically impact the student’s future. Accommodations can be made and the diagnosis can change the student’s self-concept and level of performance. (Link to my previous blog about testing for college entrance exams).
If work functioning is falling below expectations and you just can’t get out of this “funk,” that is a good example of when to seek professional help. If marital functioning is so difficult that it leaves one or both chronically unhappy, then seeking professional support is important. You know yourself and you know your family members and you know when things aren’t working. That’s the time to seek the advice of a professional.
Who Can Diagnose What?
Speaking of professionals, who do I need to see to get a diagnosis? Mental health providers come with a wide variety of educational and professional credentials that can make for confusing choices. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health and they primarily prescribe medications and help clients manage symptoms with pharmaceutical options. They can make diagnoses related to mental illness and will often send a client to a psychologist for further evaluation related to learning disorders and attention-deficit disorders. Psychologists are professionals who have a doctorate in some specialized area of psychology, such as clinical or counseling psychology. They can diagnose mental illness and are specially trained to conduct testing (also known as assessment or evaluation) for a range of issues, including learning and attention-deficit disorders. Clinical and counseling psychologists also often see clients for on-going therapy related to their diagnosis. Other mental health therapists typically have master’s degrees in the areas of counseling, social work, or another similar field, with specialties ranging from marriage and family therapy to addictions. These therapists can diagnose a range of mental illnesses as well, and will often refer clients to a psychologist for specialized assessment as needed.
St. Raphael Counseling has both psychologists and master’s level therapists to work with you and your family, whether or not a diagnosis is necessary. We can consult with you to determine if a diagnosis would be helpful and if so, how to move forward to access the services you need.