Mental Health Diagnoses

Mental health care

Making a mental health diagnosis

Doctors will look at a variety of things to help them diagnose a mental health condition. Among these will be:

  • Your experiences (your physical symptoms, your feelings and your behaviours)
  • The length of time you have been experiencing these symptoms, feelings and behaviours
  • The impact your problem is having on your life

Doctors usually begin by asking you some questions about your symptoms. They will ask you about your mood, your behaviours and your thoughts. Sometimes this will take the form of a questionnaire or a form to complete. The doctor’s diagnosis will be based on what you describe. For instance, if you have been suffering from low mood, you might be diagnosed with depression. If you experience a change in your symptoms at some point in time, you might find yourself with a different diagnosis.

Once you have a diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that you are unwell at the present time. It could simply mean that you do have a mental health problem but that currently, you are managing well with it both at home and at work. What’s more, you might not have a diagnosis but you still might have difficulties. There are many differences in people’s experiences of mental health problems.

Who is able to diagnose certain conditions?

For problems that are quite common like anxiety and depression, your GP will be able to give you a diagnosis after a couple of appointments. If your problem is not as common, you will be referred to a specialist like a psychiatrist. This person will probably want to see you a few times, over a long time period before they give you a diagnosis.

Schizophrenia, bipolar or schizoaffective disorder?

With schizophrenia, it is quite likely that you hear and see things that aren’t real. With schizoaffective disorder, however, you are more likely to feel detached from reality and you might have problems with your mood. These conditions do have commonalities but there are important differences that affect the treatment you receive.

Schizoaffective disorder doesn’t have as much research into it as schizophrenia does but researches do have a few clues about what happens. It has causes lying in the genes that control the body’s sleep rhythms as well as stressful events and life events.

The symptoms of schizophrenia are called “psychotic” meaning that the person loses touch with what is real. The individual will probably experience hallucinations or delusions. With schizoaffective disorder, you will experience some symptoms of schizophrenia alongside bipolar disorder, another mental health condition.

Bipolar disorder is characterised by mood swings like mania and depression. Schizoaffective disorder includes these symptoms as well as some psychotic symptoms lasting at least a fortnight.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

The DMS (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is a compilation of the work of hundreds of mental health experts from across the globe and is based on more than a decade of effort.

It is a manual that is used by psychiatrists and clinicians to diagnose mental health disorders and psychiatric illnesses. It is also used to see what treatments are recommended for different disorders.

This manual is not based on theory but is focused on a description of symptoms and statistics. It includes information like the typical age of onset, which gender is most often affected by an illness, the effects of treatment, common approaches to treatment and treatment effects.

World Health Organisation International Classification of Diseases (ICD)

The ICT (International Classification of Diseases) is a diagnostic tool that is used by clinicians. It is a publication that is managed by the WHO (World Health Organisation). Originally, it was designed as a classification system for health care that comprised of diagnostic codes to help classify diseases. It includes a variety of symptoms, signs, complaints, abnormal findings, external causes of diseases or injuries and social circumstances. As a system, it is designed to map out health conditions into generic categories that have specific variations and each one is assigned a code that is up to six characters in length. It has been considered as a major step forward as it helps the digital world and medicine work together.

The International Classification of Diseases is used across the world for mortality and morbidity statistics as well as automated decision support for health care. It is a system that is designed to help promote comparability across different nations in classifying, processing, collecting and presenting statistics.

The pros and cons of diagnosis

Having a diagnosis can be useful as you could feel relieved that there is a name for what is wrong and you might not feel so alone with your problem as others have it too. It can also help to decide treatment options.

A lot of people, however, even psychiatrists and doctors, find having a diagnosis problematic because it might not fit your experiences completely and risks putting you in a box.

Here is a summary of some of the pros and cons:


  • It makes things easier when communicating with professionals
  • It makes finding information on specific problems easier
  • A diagnosis can be used as an umbrella term, ultimately making it easier to talk to family and friends about a mental health condition without going into exact problems and difficulties
  • Labelling your feelings can help someone recongise that their condition is a real one


  • Some people feel that having a label is permanent, especially when it comes to mental health conditions.
  • The label might not be an exact fit – any new symptoms might get ignored of lumped under the same label.