Hello and Happy New Year! With 2020 behind us, it’s time to move forward, grow, and live our lives to the fullest. Part of my job as a counselor is to help educate and orientate my clients to the world of mental health counseling (I truly believe that an understanding helps with the process and leads to positive outcomes). One topic that comes up frequently is diagnosing mental health disorders.


Within the world of mental health diagnosing, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5 edition (DSM-5) is thought of as the “bible” for diagnosing and classifying mental health disorders — and there are over 150 diagnoses listed. Now, do therapists have ALL those memorized — absolutely not. Some diagnoses listed aren’t even on our radar as generalized or specialized clinicians (i.e. Intellectual disability, major neurocognitive disorder (dementia, Alzheimer’s etc.)).


What is the DSM-5? The DSM-5 is THE book for diagnosing disorders and is published through the American Psychiatry Association. It lists all descriptions, criteria, and other statistical knowledge regarding the various diagnoses. Most importantly, the DSM-5 lists specific criteria (symptoms, signs, durations of symptoms, etc.) that must be met in order for an official diagnosis to be made for each client. What this means, if an individual comes in feeling sad they do not get diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder — because there are specific criteria that must fully be met — are you still with me? Being generally sad and feeling ‘down’ could be associated with several diagnoses.


Being able to thoroughly go through an intake and properly diagnosis is where having a good clinician pays off. Through questioning, exploration, and a sensitive curiosity, your counselor if needed, will provide a provisional or principle diagnosis and establish a strong treatment plan.


Most of the time, diagnosing takes several sessions, as your counselor will need to get to know you, understand your mental health history, and work through several working diagnoses before hitting the most accurate one. Often, various assessments, tests, and screeners are used to help formulate a diagnosis. What’s important is that this process is done together and done correctly, not on your own.


“I’ve done some research — and I think I have (insert diagnosis)” comes up a lot in this process. With the availability of the diagnostic criteria online, people can research and make some diagnostic decisions. While this is helpful and shows that the client has been motivated, it is not an official diagnosis and should not be thought of as such. Most of the time, your counselor may agree with you, and some of the time they may not. Self diagnosing is never a smart idea — doctors don’t diagnosis themselves, nor do lawyers defend themselves. Mental health diagnosing is the same. There are far too many biases to be objective when diagnosing.


So, all in all, it’s a process that a trained individual is able to do and can help aid in the treatment planning process. But the fact remains — the diagnosis is not a label and does not define who you are as a person or how you move through life. As always, if you have any questions regarding this process, your counselor at WCC will be more than happy to help answer to the best of their ability!