The label a mental health professional uses to talk about a specific mental illness is called a diagnosis. An example of a diagnosis might be “generalized anxiety disorder,” or “bipolar disorder II.” There are a lot of different types of mental illness—they go way beyond just “depression.” If you’re pretty sure you’re experiencing a mental illness but you’re not sure which one, where do you start?
Do I need to put a label on it?
You don’t have to have a diagnosis in order to seek help. Some therapists actually prefer not to diagnose their clients. And even people who don’t have a mental illness can benefit from therapy or other mental health treatments. The most important thing is just recognizing that you are going through something and that you could use some help.
Still, it can be nice to have a name for what you’re going through. Labels are there to help you, not to limit you or put you in a box. Finding the right diagnosis can help you:
- Find helpful information online
- Connect with other people who have had similar experiences
- Get the right kind of treatment
For example, if you know you have bipolar disorder, you can Google “bipolar disorder” and find lots of information about it. There are online forums where people talk about bipolar disorder specifically. And there are certain meds that work for bipolar disorder but not for other mental illnesses like anxiety or depression.
So how do I find out what I have?
Sometimes people are able to get a pretty good sense of what condition they might have just from reading about it online and talking to other people who have had similar experiences. But it’s also easy to get carried away. Ever use WebMD to check your physical symptoms and come away thinking you must have some rare disease? Mental illness can be the same way.
A good starting point is to take a mental health screen online. The screening tools on this site are the same ones used in a lot of doctors’ offices. They’re scientifically validated, and much more accurate than just reading about something and making a guess. You can use your results to start a conversation with your friends or family, or use them to monitor your progress over time.
Eventually, if you want to be officially diagnosed with a mental illness, you’ll need to meet with a doctor or a therapist. They’ll ask you some questions and use their training and experience to determine whether your symptoms match with a particular mental illness. If you can, try to meet with someone who specializes in mental health, like a psychiatrist or a therapist. But your regular family doctor can diagnose common conditions like depression and anxiety. They can also help refer you to a specialist.
Even mental health professionals aren’t perfect. If you’ve been diagnosed with something and you don’t think it’s accurate, it may be a good idea to get a second opinion. And always remember: a diagnosis doesn’t define you—it’s just a way of connecting you with the help you need.