by Emily Harrington
Should We Have Labels?
Would it be better to believe you were normal than know you are sick? Does having a label make your life worse?
Anything classified as a mental illness or mental disorder is, by its nature, problematic. It’s almost always distressing or painful. A person with a mental illness can usually identify that their feelings are not average or the same as their peers’. The ill person will also probably be able to identify that they are in pain or struggling in some way.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say hypothetically that “Larry” is suffering from mental illness, specifically borderline personality disorder, but has not identified that there is anything problematic with his thoughts or behaviors.
What Larry does know is that he can’t keep a girlfriend, everyone makes him angry, he can go from laughing to crying in a matter of minutes, he frequently feels guilty and hates himself, and if he starts thinking bad things he spirals out. He has a contentious relationship with his boss and his coworkers hurt his feelings all the time, so his job is miserable. At night, when he’s driving, he gets very anxious because he always sees cats dart across the road right in front of his car. Sometimes when he gets stressed he “zones out” (dissociates), and sometimes feels like he’s outside of his body, watching himself. All of these problems make his life harder, less stable, less safe, and more painful. All of these problems cause suffering. And all of these problems could be treated effectively if he saw a therapist.
If Larry never gets a diagnosis or finds out that the problems he has are all related, that they have a name, and that other people have had them, too, he is likely to lose hope. He may just settle into the idea that life is awful and there is no point. This makes him much more likely to attempt suicide. If he doesn’t know that he is mentally ill, there’s no reason to not believe that the world is as awful as it seems to be. He’s missing a key piece of information that could lead him to treatment, personal research, introspection, and hope. He could feel better; it’s possible. But if he believes there is nothing wrong with his thinking, then suicide is clearly a wise choice in his own eyes. Without identifying a problem, there is no hope of fixing it.
A diagnosis is the biggest clue a mentally ill person can receive in their treatment. Once you know what your illness is called, you can start learning potentially life-saving information. You learn about what thoughts and behaviors are typically problematic for people with your diagnosis and then learn how others cope with them. You can read first-person accounts of other people with your same diagnosis and learn how they survive or even thrive. You can derive a lot of hope from other survivors.
Knowing that something is wrong is usually necessary to lead people to receiving treatment. If you don’t know it’s broken, why try to fix it? Learning your diagnosis is empowering; it allows you to move forward and try to improve the areas of your mental health that need attention and care.
I believe that it is safer, wiser, and more helpful to know your diagnosis than to be oblivious to it. Ignorance of a disorder only leads to increased suffering.