Monday, April 11, 2011

Diagnostic Labels That Change Lives

From time to time, our readers comment that they are distressed with a diagnosis a psychiatrist has given. They've met with a doctor, talked for a while (half an hour, an hour, maybe two hours) and based on whatever information the psychiatrist has, a diagnosis is made. Maybe it's right, maybe it's not, and maybe the diagnosis will change over time. Some readers have commented that they object to the idea that psychiatrists must assign a diagnosis to be paid, when in fact there is no diagnosis, and they think that's wrong. The psychiatrist should work for free? Since I don't accept insurance, I'm not obligated to make a diagnosis, but if I don't put one on the statement, the patients won't get reimbursed. Some tell me that they aren't submitting psychiatric claims to an insurance company, others don't have insurance, and many do submit claims. I'm left to wonder why someone with no psychiatric diagnosis would consult a psychiatrist to begin with, especially since some diagnoses (Adjustment Disorder, for example, or Anxiety Not Otherwise Specified) are not particularly stigmatizing.

I understand that people are miserable with mental illnesses-- the symptoms are debilitating and miserable. I also understand that people are angry about being told they have an illness that they don't agree they have-- it's a bit like being judged, or like feeling unheard, or even dismissed. Some docs may not spend the time necessary to make the right diagnosis, sometimes the diagnosis evades us, and sometimes patients don't agree with us as to what we deem 'pathology' or symptoms, versus normal reactions or behaviors.

What has perplexed me, however, is the claim that the label itself is what causes the problem. I've been practicing for a long time, and I'm not aware that anyone has ever had a problem because of a diagnostic label I've stuck on an insurance form. I think that most people who worry that their diagnosis will cause others to judge them negatively, simply don't tell people that a doctor says they have disease X. And many will say that's unfair, that people should be able to openly announce their psychiatric illnesses without worrying about the reaction or judgments of others, the way they do their medical illnesses, but personally, I'm not much for announcing health issues in open ways unless it's necessary. Enlarged prostates, diarrhea, vaginal discharges, coughing up phlegm, the details of where one is injecting one's insulin, are simply not everyone's cup of tea at the dinner table.

Sometimes people behave in distressed or dysfunctional ways and the fact that they have a psychiatric disorder is obvious. This is not because of the title of the label, it's because of the symptoms of the illness and the person's behavior. The psychiatrist's diagnosis gave it a name, but the problem belongs to the patient.

Here's my question for you: if a diagnostic label
alone has caused your life to change, tell us your story. I don't mean if it's upset you and caused you personal subjective distress, or if you've worried about having your psychiatric history discovered, but if the label itself has caused you outside difficulties or limited your life, tell us how.