Diagnosis and Medication: Do They Help?


mind coming apartMental Illness


I’ve noticed a couple of trends as a psychologist. People are much more knowledgeable about mental illness. Many read up on symptoms on the internet. They pore over diagnoses to find out what might fit for them, for a friend, or a family member. They talk about it at parties.


It makes sense that people want to figure out what’s ailing them or someone they care about. It feels good to gather information that could help us feel better. For many, being able to categorize what’s troubling them is somehow comforting. If we can label it, then we can get help for it.




Then there’s the television advertising. We’re inundated with commercials on TV about medications available to treat issues such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. Sure they list all the possible side effects, but they’re also showing someone with a much better life after taking medication. It must work don’t you think?


There are many times when people come into my office on medication for depression, anxiety, sleep problems, or a variety of other troubles. They may tell me they’ve just gone on them—or that they’ve been on them for years—and yet never saw a therapist to try to talk through their troubles beforehand. If there’s a drug that we can go on to treat these troubles, shouldn’t we just take it?




Recently I went to a workshop with Dr. Allen Frances. He’s a psychiatrist who was involved in developing the DSM-111 and IV, two of the past Diagnosis books that psychiatrists and psychologists used to diagnose mental disorders. When the DSM 5 was in the works, Dr. Frances came out of retirement to voice his concerns to the committee working on the document, to talk with professionals working in the field, and to educate the public on the epidemic of diagnoses plaguing us.


You may be asking now, what? What epidemic? Aren’t these books and the information on TV and the internet just there to help us? What’s the problem?


Here’s some startling info. Back in 1860, the first manual on psychiatric diagnosis was published. At that time, there were only 6 diagnoses in the book. Now there are almost 300. Have we really gotten that much sicker?


Be slow to get diagnosed


A health care professional-and the public-should be very slow to make a diagnosis. It’s much more helpful to consider symptoms as part of a reaction that will eventually getting better, rather than make a diagnosis.


Let’s face it—life has its ups and downs. We’re impacted by the stuff that happens in our lives for better or worse. Going to get help for our troubles is a good thing. But we should be careful about wanting to get diagnosed for these concerns. Talking can be a great way to work through things. We don’t need a diagnosis to do that nor do we often need medication.