Our minds naturally like things in neat, tidy boxes. Our brains crave organizing things into categories and labeling them. It often makes life easier, helps things make more sense, and can potentially help us create more meaning and fun as it affords us the space to think and feel in an orderly way.
What happens when we ask the simple yet riddling questions: Could we better help people by categorizing and organizing their experience? Are there any drawbacks to labeling people and their mental health symptoms? Is there a place for diagnostic sticky-notes on people? Is there value in making blanket assumptions about the intricate nuances of human experience in the name of diagnosing or prognosing them?
In many ways, mental health labels are associated with the allopathic medical approach to mental health, which is an incomplete model at best. After over a decade in the mental health field, I’ve become wary of how mental health labels have been weaponized in settings like psychiatric institutions, jails, and society at large. For example, diagnoses can be used to prescribe (and justify) highly volatile medications as a pseudo-panacea without investing the adequate time and energy to understand the unique psychological story and biochemistry of a person. To top it off, many mental health labels still carry significant social stigma.
This isn’t to say that categorizing or labeling experiences to more easily digest our infinitely complex world is solely a negative thing. To understand, organize, and investigate our experiences from a top-down lens can be both useful and comforting, as long as we understand that they’re cognitive tools, and nothing more.
It is both inaccurate and harmful to use labels to describe the whole being of a person unless that person specifically makes an informed choice on how and why a mental health label works for them.
Perhaps a better way to use mental health labels is to describe phenomena rather than people. For instance, when I work with someone experiencing psychosis, I don’t see “a psychotic”; I see a person that’s been experiencing psychosis for x amount of time, with x amount of intensity. How about the guy that is resistant to insulin? He’s not “a diabetic”; he’s a person with diabetes. And the woman who has a profound fear of real or imagined abandonment? She’s not “a borderline”; she’s a wounded person who expresses borderline personality traits.
When we modify our language in this way, the emphasis is placed on the human rather than the pathology. Even the “pathology” itself can be viewed from a more curious, compassionate lens – as survival tools, rather than a moral ineptitude. Mental health experiences are more accurately described as states of being – whether they are acute, chronic, or cyclical – and not inherent characterological traits permanently etched in people’s psyches or DNA. In other words, no mental health label or diagnosis has to be a life sentence.
This is because people are not machines with isolated functions. It’s important to look at the gestalt (the whole picture) of a person as a constantly-adjusting process in response to mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual signals rather than cherry-pick parts of people to satisfy our intellectual tick to categorize things.
The complete perspective understands people as conscious beings with infinitely complex and varied experiences in which mind, body, and prana collaborate to create an integrated system. Then, and only then, we may trust that the labels we use would help more than they hurt.