How are mental health problems diagnosed?

To diagnose a mental health problem, doctors will look at:

  • What symptoms you are experiencing (groupings of certain symptoms suggest different diagnoses)
  • How long you have been experiencing these symptoms
  • The impact these symptoms are having on your life

To do this they may ask you questions about your mood, thoughts and behaviours – sometimes by using questionnaires or forms. They will base your diagnosis on what you describe. For example, if you tell your doctor you have been experiencing low mood, low energy and a lack of interest in usual activities for more than two weeks, this may lead to a diagnosis of depression. If your symptoms change you might find you are given different diagnoses over time.

Who can diagnose me?

For common problems such as depression and anxiety, your family doctor may be able to give you a diagnosis after one or two appointments. For less common problems you will need to be referred to a mental health specialist (such as a psychiatrist), and they may want to see you over a longer period of time before making a diagnosis.

“After overcoming the initial shock of the diagnosis, it is actually a blessing because now I know what I need to do to get better”

What if I don’t find my diagnosis helpful?

Receiving a diagnosis can be a positive experience. You might feel relieved that you can put a name to what is wrong, and it can help you and your doctor discuss what kind of treatment might work best for you.

However, a lot of people, including some doctors, feel the medical model of diagnosis and treatment is not enough. For example, you might feel that the diagnosis you are given does not fully fit your experiences, or that it is simplistic and puts you in a box. Other factors – such as your background, lifestyle and other personal circumstances – may be just as important in understanding what you are experiencing and working out how best to help you feel better.

A diagnosis does not have to shape your entire life and may come to be a relatively minor part of your identity.

Are people with mental health problems dangerous?

Some people think that there is an automatic link between mental health problems and being a danger to others. This is an idea that is largely reinforced by sensationalised stories in the media. However, the most common mental health problems have no significant link to violent behaviour. The proportion of people living with a mental health problem who have committed a violent crime is extremely small.

There are lots of reasons someone might commit a violent crime, and factors like drug and alcohol misuse are far more likely to be the cause of violent behaviour. But many people are still worried about talking about how they are feeling, or seeking help, because of the fear and stigma of being seen as dangerous.

It is important to remember that experiencing difficult thoughts, feelings and behaviours when you are unwell is common, and it is extremely unlikely to mean you may harm another person.

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