Are mental health labels helpful?

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It was only a couple of years ago that my doc suggested my many ailments could all be caused by anxiety, and shortly after that the term “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” was used to describe what was going on with my body.

With this diagnosis, I could move forward with a better understanding of what was causing me issues. I went to the Anxiety Disorder Association of Manitoba for help, joined online support groups and did a heck of a lot of reading.

Then, a few months ago, I had a one hour meeting with a psychologist. Based on a multiple choice questionnaire I filled out and a conversation in which she bluntly asked me about being sexually assaulted with two other people in the room awkwardly and silently watching me, she slapped two more labels on me.

“I don’t even know who told you you have a Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” she said, sounding like she was rolling her eyes, before telling me I have PTSD and persistent acute depression. (My family doc gave me the initial diagnosis, by the way, after years of getting to know me). “You’re focusing a lot on anxiety,” she said, implying there were other issues I should be concerned about. The way she said this, I felt judged. Her tone made me feel like I was monumentally fucking up when it came to taking care of myself.

“Okay. So, what should I be doing differently?”

I’d told her I was cutting back caffeine, doing yoga and meditating, seeing a counsellor, doing cognitive behavioural therapy, and planning to exercise once my concussion was history. Her one suggestion was to go back on meds after the concussion had healed, which I was already planning on doing.

So, in short, I was doing everything right for all three mental health issues, despite focusing too much on my anxiety. I walked away from that appointment laughing because I was more fucked up than I’d thought, but there wasn’t anything for me to do about it.

What was wrong with the appointment with the psychologist wasn’t that she diagnosed me with mental illnesses, it was that she assumed she knew me well enough in that short period of time to diagnose me and pass judgement on how I was dealing with myself. I wondered if she was looking at me as someone fucked up by these conditions rather than an individual person different from everyone else dealing with the same struggles.

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Everyone has anxiety, sadness and bad memories. They plague me more than people who don’t have an anxiety disorder, depression and PTSD, but that doesn’t really make me that different from anyone else. I just have more intense feelings. When these conditions are used as labels by others, they alienate me.

Through my mental health diagnosis, I’ve realized that self-labeling can be super helpful, as long as we’re the ones in control and we’re putting ourselves in groups.

I’m an anxious, depressed queer femme vegan feminist with PTSD from multiple sexual assaults. With each label I chose, I found a community of people who support that part of my identity. Almost no one knows me in my entirety, but that’s okay because I’m the only one who needs to.

“Freelancer” is another label I adopted that allows me to reach out to communities of people who have similar struggles as I do.

Labels are tricky. While they can be empowering when we give them to ourselves, being prescribed labels has the opposite effect. While poking around to prep for writing this, I found quite a few articles about the dangers of giving patients mental health labels.

Have you had negative experiences after been given a label by a medical professional? What are your thoughts on mental health labels?

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