Labels are for Groceries

How often are you reminded that you have a mental health diagnosis? Daily? Weekly? If you’re like me, my “diagnosis” hits me square in the face every time I see my psychiatrist, visit with my therapist, or refill my medications. I am reminded when I’m experiencing either highs or lows and think to myself “Ah yes, those are the symptoms of my diagnosis.”

Even in the most positive of situations, such as having an encouraging visit with friends over coffee, when the conversation turns to discussion of our mental health challenges I am once again reminded of my “diagnosis.” While I find comfort in being with others who can relate to my experience and the daily challenges of managing a chronic condition, there are also times when I just want to enjoy life and forget about myself for a while. Many of us experience this conflict of desires: to be both understood and yet to escape.

In many ways, defining ourselves by the diagnosis we’ve been given can cause mental and emotional pain. This psychic pain is in addition to the symptoms we’re already experiencing as a result of the dysfunction in our brain. We have the tendency to take our diagnosis upon ourselves—much like an actor takes on a part—as a label by which we define ourselves. This label tells me who I am, what I am or am not capable of doing, how others are going to relate to me, and how it will impact my daily functioning. It’s like we figuratively enclose ourselves in a box, stamped with a label that reads, “Depression Inside” (or whatever diagnosis you’ve been given).

So what is the purpose of a diagnosis if it’s not to give us a definitive “label” that provides answers for the unsettling symptoms we experience? We’d likely be in agreement that a diagnosis (or label) is necessary to help your doctor find the right meds to help you feel better physically and emotionally; but interestingly enough, what you may not realize is that a diagnosis is also required for billing and insurance purposes. Whether you go to the doctor for a sinus infection or to a psychiatrist for anxiety symptoms, he/she must determine a diagnosis which is associated with a code which is then submitted to your insurance company or the government. Your doctor is then paid based on the code/diagnosis submitted. So a diagnosis in the billing world is simply an identifier, not a statement about you as a person.

Another problem with defining yourself by a label is that most mental health diagnoses are subjective. There are no lab tests or x-rays that can identify, say, depression or schizophrenia. In order to arrive at a diagnosis and treatment plan, the doctor must rely on information that you provide such as your psychological and physical symptoms, medical history and family background.

I imagine that many of you have been through the frustration of receiving a diagnosis, only to have that diagnosis changed and a new treatment plan implemented a few months later. Once we’ve mentally adapted to the reality that our diagnosis is “X” and now the doctor changes it to “Y,” we stigmatize ourselves by making evaluations about the severity of one diagnosis over another. I understand this because I’ve been down that path too. Initially I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. After several months of treatment I was still experiencing a lot of ups and downs, making daily functioning unpredictable. My psychiatrist then prescribed a mood stabilizer and changed my diagnosis to Bipolar ll. In my mind, a diagnosis of bipolar was worse than having depression.

How did I arrive at this evaluation? Primarily through stigmas communicated to us by our culture. I had internalized these stigmas toward mental illnesses and saw myself as worse off and more of an embarrassment to others now that my diagnosis was bipolar instead of depression. Each of us needs to be involved in the ongoing cause to Stamp Out Stigma in our communities, even if that begins in our own thinking about ourselves.

As a result of this troubling experience I came to realize I’d been defining myself by the label “depression” since I was first diagnosed. And while I was upset with the new diagnosis, l made a conscious decision to break out of the depression-labeled box that I’d voluntarily crawled into. I have a diagnosis of Bipolar ll but it doesn’t define who l am.

As often as you have to, remind yourself, “I am not my diagnosis.” You are so much more, dear friend. You have gifts and talents. There are people in your life who care about you deeply. You don’t have to give up on your dreams—you have the power of Christ within you to make them happen! And God loves you like crazy and wants you to have a full and rich life despite having a mental health challenge.

The diagnosis you’ve been given is no different than if you were told you had diabetes or fibromyalgia or heart disease. A mental health diagnosis is a medical condition with no shame or stigma attached to it. When you limit yourself by a label or see yourself as inferior to others because your diagnosis affects your mind and emotions, then you are stigmatizing yourself. Stamp out stigma by stamping out labels. After all, labels are for groceries.

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